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Promise of protection surfaces on 20th anniversary of Pajaro flood

March 11, 2015. The debate over flood control raged for years before the Pajaro River gushed through a break in the levee at Murphy Crossing in the early morning hours of March 11, 1995.

Source: Santa Cruz Sentinel

The debate over flood control raged for years before the Pajaro River gushed through a break in the levee at Murphy Crossing in the early morning hours of March 11, 1995.

The waters swamped the town of Pajaro and some 3,000 acres of farmland. One person was killed, and damages ran into the tens of millions.

On the 20th anniversary of the devastating deluge, the anger and grief have subsided. But a promised overhaul of the aging levees that guard against flooding on the Pajaro and two of its tributaries, Salsipuedes and Corralitos creeks, has not materialized. Whether conflicts have ended remains to be seen.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expects to wrap up a feasibility study this year on its latest proposals to shore up the more than 60-year-old levee system. Then it will be up to the community to decide how to proceed.

"I certainly hope they can come to an agreement on a plan," said Lorraine Stucki, an 83-year-old who pays more than $1,000 a year for the flood insurance covering her home in a neighborhood of senior citizens on the east side of Watsonville. Levee overhaul "is the ultimate goal, and I hope to see it completed in my lifetime."

Almost from the beginning, the levees were unsatisfactory. Built in 1949, they failed to contain flooding in 1955. Federal authorities offered to redo the system, but the community couldn't come to an agreement on financing and in 1975 rejected the proposal. Afterward, squabbles arose over maintenance. Critics, mostly farmers, said too little was being done. County officials cited environmental regulations for hampering their efforts.

Bickering continued after the 1995 catastrophe and less major flooding in 1998. Environmentalists wanted a more natural river channel. Farmers didn't want to lose land to the project, especially if they weren't guaranteed the channel would be kept clear of vegetation.

A chronic lack of federal funding bogged down the project further.

Change of plans

The latest setback came in 2008, when the Army Corps scaled back a plan approved by both Santa Cruz and Monterey counties to shore up a 12-mile section of levee to provide 100-year flood protection between Pajaro Dunes on the coast and Murphy Crossing inland. That would have reduced the risk of flooding in any one year to 1 percent, but, according to Army Corps estimates, cost $344 million.

The Army Corps, on the hook for 75 percent of the expense in a decades-old cost-sharing agreement, said the numbers didn't pencil out. Its plan, which focused on protecting Watsonville and Pajaro, would cost less than half that.

But in Santa Cruz County, where officials said the Corps proposal would flood farmland on their side of the river by design, the plan was a nonstarter.

"We had to say to the Corps, 'You're making matters worse with the levees than without them,'" said county flood control manager Bruce Leclergue.

Cynics began to doubt a project would ever get off the ground. During a 2011 tour of the levee, for instance, then-Watsonville city manager Carlos Palacios said he had "lost faith."

"The federal project is never going to happen," he said.

In 2013, the county completed the interim projects Palacios and other city officials were pushing for that day. The removal of nearly 300,000 cubic yards of dirt from levee benches to increase the river's carrying capacity and the restoration of the Salsipuedes Creek flood walls, which had settled over the years, to their original height, have added a measure of protection. But the river remains a threat, and for those who live and work in its shadow, flood insurance rates are rising.

Hopes rising

After years of funding shortfalls, the federal authorization of $700,000 this year to complete a feasibility study of the Army Corps' latest alternatives is the most promising action in years. Corps spokeswoman Torrie McAllister said the engineering, economic and planning analysis will identify the alternative that provides the most benefit for the least cost and that is environmentally acceptable. She said the draft report would be released for public comment by January 2016.

At the county, Laclergue said he was "guardedly optimistic."

Though details have not been released, Laclergue said he expects the Corps plan will give the towns 100-year protection and farmland half that. If local communities want more, they'll have to cover the additional cost.

In January, the Watsonville City Council approved a $250,000 contract for a consultant to reach out to the community and build consensus around design and financing once the Corps releases its plan. A state grant is covering the cost of the contract.

Pajaro resident Tony Yepiz, 71, lost everything in the 1995 flood - furniture, carpeting, car, the ice cream truck that provided his living. He believes the river will flood again, and he'd like to see more protection from flooding. But he doesn't worry about it, and he doesn't plan to mark the anniversary.

"I put it aside," Yepiz said. "I went forward."

Pajaro River Levee Time line

1949: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers builds levees on Pajaro River and Salsipuedes and Corralitos creeks.

1955: Pajaro River breaches levee and floods downtown Watsonville.

1966: Federal authorities OK new levee project.

1975: Local communities say no to project.

1995: Levee breach near Murphy Crossing causes estimated $60 million in damages in Pajaro and surrounding Monterey County farmland, prompting new interest in project.

1998: Eight breaks on Pajaro River and Salsipuedes Creek levees cost $3.2 million to repair. Farmland on south side of Beach Road flooded. Thousands evacuated in Watsonville and Pajaro .

2004: Santa Cruz and Monterey counties approve 'locally preferred' project that includes rebuilding 12 miles of levee from Murphy Crossing to river mouth.

2008: After years of delays due to lack of funding to complete studies, Army Corps presents truncated plan opposed by Monterey and Santa Cruz county leaders.

2013: Santa Cruz County completes $9.5 million interim flood control projects, removing nearly 300,000 cubic yards of soil from levee benches to improve carrying capacity of river and restoring Salsipuedes Creek levee to original height.

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