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Editorial: Compromise on river cleaning or face flood of trouble

The Californian

In March, the Salinas River punched through a section of its levee in south Monterey County, flooding hundreds of acres of farmland. Row crops were damaged or ruined. Luckily, no human lives were lost.

Elsewhere on the 155-mile-long river, the levee held.

But the flooding near Gonzales dredged up a decades-old debate over who is responsible for clearing and maintaining the river for flood control, and exactly how that job should be done.

Farmers and growers long have complained about the river's alleged neglect by state and federal agencies in charge of regulating maintenance. Some of the locals formed a volunteer group and have cleared miles of the river channel on their own but with the proper permits issued by the powers that be. These locals blame the neglect of the river channel for the flooding in March. They were unable to get the permits this past winter to do any clearing.

Meanwhile, environmental groups claim the river-clearing process damages, perhaps permanently, the river's rich eco-system. It also puts flora and fauna at or in danger of extinction at risk, they say.

An alphabet soup of federal and state agencies are in the midst of examining the river, calling for environmental reports to determine its health and what should be done about it. In the meantime, the river channel goes uncleared.

In Monterey County, be it on land or in the waterways, there is a delicate balance that must be struck between their use and preservation. To those who follow local river politics, this stalemate on the Salinas River is nothing new. But to the public who may only now be seeing the relevance of a free-flowing river to public safety and commerce, it's time to pay closer attention. If not for philosophical reasons, then for practical ones.

Valuable tax dollars could be at stake if the river isn't maintained and cleared regularly.

In 1995, we saw what neglect of the Pajaro River in north county caused: the flooding of the town of Pajaro and nearby farmland and businesses. That river, too, has been the center of political fighting between Monterey and Santa Cruz counties over the years. This delayed river maintenance, resulting in a channel choked by debris and overgrown trees and brush.

In the decade following the Pajaro flood, both Monterey and Santa Cruz counties were sued by more than 100 farmers, homeowners, businesses and other property owners with total claims reaching above $50 million. Each county paid out multimillions to settle those suits.

That is a tough and expensive lesson to learn. The question is, have we learned it?

The answer is an emphatic "no" if we look at the politics now clogging the Salinas River. After the March flooding, it may be a lawsuit waiting to happen somewhere along its banks.

No way. It's time for wiser heads to prevail and for both sides of the dispute to get aggressive about reaching an agreement to get the river channel cleared for flood protection. Somewhere between a bulldozer and a pair of hand clippers, there is a way to clear the river channel to the satisfaction of growers, agencies and environmentalists alike.

Even a short-term compromise will do to get at least the problem areas of the river cleared before the next storm season.

Without some maintenance now, the potential for flooding remains. The river work must be done. The county and local agencies cannot afford to find themselves back in court over flood damage. Taxpayers shouldn't stand for it, especially when a solution is possible. For starters, let each side of the dispute stand on this piece of common ground the protection of the public safety and livelihoods of the valley residents who work and live along the Salinas River.

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