Flooding risk reduced along Pajaro River: Phase 1 of $8.3 million levee proDonna Jones, Santa Cruz Sentinel
Flooding risk reduced along Pajaro River: Phase 1 of $8.3 million levee project complete
By DONNA JONES
Santa Cruz Sentinelsantacruzsentinel.com
Posted: 09/19/2012 07:20:54 PM PDT
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Dignitaries, community members and representatives from funding agencies... ( Shmuel Thaler )
WATSONVILLE -- Officials from two counties gathered Wednesday atop the Pajaro River levee to celebrate the completion of the first phase of an $8.3 million flood protection project.
The sun shone on the fresh excavation below, a dig designed to enlarge the capacity of the flood-prone river during winter storms.
"We're able to tell some of our residents, you don't have to fear so much," said Watsonville Mayor Eduardo Montesino.
That's reassurance long awaited by people on both sides of the river, the dividing line between Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. For years, they've worried about the risk of a major flood for good reason. In March 1995, during a heavy storm, the decades-old levee crumbled and the floodwaters ravaged the town of Pajaro and more than 3,000 acres of Monterey County farmland. Damages ran nearly $100 million.
In the wake of the flood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received federal support to rebuild a 12-mile stretch of levee, from Murphy Road to the mouth of the river at Pajaro Dunes. The idea was to provide 100-year flood protection, which reduces the chance of flooding in any one year to 1 percent. But the project has stalled amid disputes over plans and federal funding shortfalls.
The current project, known as bench excavation, was conceived in 2005 as an interim step. But it too took far longer than expected as officials built consensus among stakeholders on a design, secured permits from regulatory agencies and persuaded the state to part with $7.5 million in grants to help pay for the work.
The first phase removed 140,000 cubic yards of sediment -- about 14,000 dump truck loads -- from the levee channel between Highway 1 and just east of the Main Street bridge connecting downtown Watsonville with Pajaro. The second phase, expected to begin in June 2013 and wrap up in October, will dig out another 190,000 cubic yards between Salsipuedes Creek and Murphy Road.
The Army Corps is scheduled to issue a draft environmental study of its much larger project in early 2013, according to spokesman John D. Hardesty.
Monterey County Supervisor Lou Calcagno praised the efforts of Bruce Leclergue, who as Santa Cruz County's flood control manager, spearheaded the bench project. It should be called "Bruce's project," he told the crowd Wednesday.
"I thought you'd never do it, but you did it," Calcagno said, turning toward Leclergue. "You had the fortitude, and without that fortitude this would have never taken place."
Leclergue said the project is one that should please those threatened with flooding, as well as environmentalists. The project increases the carrying capacity of the river about 10 percent, improves habitat for fish and re-plants the slopes with native vegetation.
Watsonville Councilwoman Nancy Bilicich represents neighborhoods along the river and Salispuedes Creek. She said the flooding risk, while diminished hasn't disappeared, and she looks forward to the enhanced protection along Salsipuedes Creek offered by the Corps' plan. Still she hailed the two counties for getting the bench project done.
"It's a major move in the right direction," Bilicich said.
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AT A GLANCE
Pajaro River project
WHAT: Removal of 330,000 cubic yards of sediment from Pajaro River levee channel
WHY: To reduce risk of flooding by increasing river's capacity to carry storm water
WHERE: A 10-mile stretch between Highway 1 and Murphy Road
HOW: Excavation of 39 acres to an average depth of 5 feet
WHEN: First phase completed this summer; second phase scheduled for June-October 2013
COST: $8.3 million