Longtime executive director of TRLIA honored

·6 min read

Dec. 8—In a room filled with family and longtime colleagues, Three Rivers Levee Improvement Authority Executive Director Paul Brunner was recognized and honored Tuesday for all the work he has done over the years to protect the citizens and lands of Yuba County.

For Brunner, Tuesday's TRLIA board meeting was his last after recently announcing his retirement after serving as executive director with the agency since 2006.

During his time at TRLIA, Brunner helped secure more than $500 million for levee improvements that help protect communities such as Plumas Lake, Linda, Olivehurst and Arboga. Those improvements and the work Brunner has done throughout his time with TRLIA have made a considerable impact on the county and the people who live there.

On Tuesday, many of Brunner's colleagues spoke to say goodbye to the man who has made the lives of those around this area safer and more secure.

"On behalf of the entire board (Central Valley Flood Protection board), I want to thank you Paul for your commitment and dedication to improving the fate of tens of thousands of people who live and work in south Yuba County," said Bill Edgar, president of the Central Valley Flood Protection Board. "Paul, the mission on which you embarked resulted in Yuba County's largest-ever civil works/public safety project, one that better ensures that the devastation of past flood events is not experienced again."

Edgar said Brunner "set the standard for other regional flood control agencies."

Michael Sabbahian, advisor to the deputy director of the Department of Water Resources, said he has known Brunner since 2008.

"Paul was always looking for ways to make a project more efficient ... and it was always a pleasure to work with him," said Sabbahian. "He has shown to be a great leader for the area, not only on flood aspects but also ecosystem and generally looking to improve the quality of life in the basin. He always talked about his vision of all these projects that he wanted to do that would have a long-term effect on the program."

Sabbahian said Brunner was always very good at identifying a problem, looking for opportunities for resources and then figuring out a way that was a "win-win solution" to be able to secure additional funding.

Rick Reinhardt, a consulting engineer for TRLIA, has worked with Brunner since 2006. He said most people don't understand how close the levee program in Yuba County was to failure and that Brunner was essential in its success.

"When I think about what would have been done differently if Paul wouldn't have been here, honestly I don't think we would have had a Feather River setback levee," said Reinhardt. "... Because of Paul's tenacity, his unwillingness to take no for an answer, each time we had a barrier before us, he broke through. I think it's an amazing testament to his leadership."

Scott Shapiro, a managing partner with Downey Brand which is general counsel for TRLIA, said over the years that he has seen Brunner's tenacity in his position as executive director.

"We would be sitting in a conference room in a staff meeting going back and forth over something that was taking weeks or taking months and you (Brunner) were getting more and more frustrated," said Shapiro. "And eventually you would just come out and would say, 'I'm going down to Sacramento and I'm going to sit on that person's desk until we get this worked out.' ... You always came back having solved the problem and having removed the road block and things were moving forward again."

Andy Vasquez, TRLIA board chair and Yuba County supervisor, later presented Brunner with a proclamation recognizing his efforts in improving flood protection for south Yuba County. The proclamation listed many of the accomplishments during Brunner's time with TRLIA. They included: — The management of more than $80 million of levee improvements, including the construction of the Bear River setback levee. — Securing $139 million in Prop 1E funds to repair 13 miles of levees along the Feather River from the Yuba River to the Bear River. — Expanding TRLIA's levee repair program into a four-phased, $500 million effort over the course of the next 15 years. — Completion of the Goldfields 200-Year Levee, the final project in TRLIA's efforts to provide 200-year flood protection to south Yuba County. — Efforts to secure FEMA accreditation for the improved levees, avoiding regulatory impacts associated with building restrictions and keeping flood insurance at affordable levels. — Efforts to secure adequate funding for the operations and maintenance of the improved levee system.

After receiving the proclamation, Brunner spoke about his time with TRLIA after working for many years as a civil engineer and later as a civilian with the U.S. Air Force.

"One of my pet phrases (is) just go do it," said Brunner. "... I will take risks and challenges. ... You don't do it stupidly, but you press. What I've found in government is that risk is very much adverse. People avoid making progress and they come up with decoys and fake progress. ... The element of success ... is to complete the mission."

Brunner said his mission in Yuba County was to get the levees built.

"It was really a team effort," said Brunner.

He said he was there at TRLIA "to steer the ship, take the risk, and push and never take no for an answer."

Brunner said one of his greatest challenges was the Goldfields project.

"Literally I was told when we started off on that adventure, was that no one ever succeeds in the Goldfields," said Brunner. "It's always a failure ... and my personality is such that, OK, you're telling me that I can't do it, forget that. We're just going to go do it."

Brunner said the definition of a leader is someone that doesn't do everything, but ensures that the team is engaged, knows the mission and gets that mission done.

He later credited Mary Jane Greigo, a former Yuba County Supervisor and TRLIA board member, with helping to get many of the flood control projects completed.

"When Plumas Lake started to develop and Edgewater really started to boom ... we really needed some leadership," said Greigo, who is currently on the Central Valley Flood Protection board. "... We couldn't have picked a better person than Paul. We had a vision of what we'd like to do and through the course of Three Rivers that vision grew. ... We picked the right person who had the energy, that had the passion and who had the desire to see this accomplished."

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