In the latest legal gambit to address homeless encampments in the Bay Area, the board of directors of Santa Clara Valley Water wants to make it illegal to camp in or along any of the 300 miles of creeks and waterways it manages.

The issue of long-term encampments, with their trash and public health hazards, has been the source of many complaints from residents of San Jose and elsewhere in Santa Clara County for a number of years. And now the board of Valley Water is also seeking to turn this into a workplace safety issue, as KRON4 reports, utilizing a new state law, SB-553, which just took effect July 1.

The new law requires employers to create and adopt a comprehensive workplace violence prevention plan, and this includes "identifying, evaluating, and correcting workplace violence hazards." The board of the water district contends that encampments present violence hazards, which they say have included armed threats of violence against Valley Water employees, verbal assaults, physical intimidation, and vicious dog encounters.

The proposed ordinance, called the Water Resources Protection Zones Ordinance(pdf), will "establish water resources protection zones to ensure that Valley Water continues providing Silicon Valley safe, clean water," and it will "support and improve safety conditions for Valley Water employees working in the field," the board says in a statement.

"Many Valley Water employees work primarily along creeks, waterways, and water supply facilities," the board says. "The continued presence of encampments on Valley Water lands increases the opportunity for safety incidents and the likelihood that the associated legally mandated mitigation response will delay mission-critical work."

This ordinance would ban the following:

  • Unauthorized establishment of encampments.
  • Any unauthorized presence in one of the established zones after sunset.
  • Any depositing of trash, debris, and/or hazardous pollutants related to the establishment or presence of encampments.
  • The keeping of animals in established zones.
  • Any activity or nuisance that unreasonably disturbs the occupants of neighboring properties, including but not limited to the possession or use of explosives, fireworks, or other toxic or hazardous materials or substances, or use of any loudspeakers, public address systems, sound amplifiers, radio, or broadcast within the water resources protection zones in a manner that sounds unreasonably loud.
  • Any activities that could create a hazard or potential hazard to Valley Water employees or the public, or that could interfere with, obstruct, or prevent the safe operation of Valley Water facilities.

As KRON4 notes, Valley Water would not be doing any of this enforcement themselves, and they would have to rely on local law enforcement's cooperation to clear encampments.

The ordinance appears to also conveniently follow a Supreme Court ruling that renders it legal to punish homeless individuals for illegal camping. The ruling found that cities' efforts to clear public spaces for the public good, with the use of local laws, is not punishment for the status of being homeless, but for actions taken by homeless individuals.

The proposed Valley Water ordinance would mean that violators could be subject to fines of up to $500 and jail time up to 30 days.

Among the creeks and waterways managed by Valley Water is Coyote Creek in San Jose, which was the site of a 200-person encampment that was cleared in May 2023. Of those 200 individuals, the city only found shelter for around 30 of them.