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Army Corps trains at Pajaro River levee...

Donna Jones, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Army Corps trains at Pajaro River levee: Local leaders hope spotlight will give push to long-delayed upgrade

WATSONVILLE -- A few dozen members of the Army Corps of Engineers descended on the Pajaro River on Tuesday to take a look at a levee long slated for an upgrade.

The training exercise was part of an annual conference in Seaside that brought together engineers, biologists, economists and planners from the Corps' South Pacific Division, which stretches from San Francisco to Albuquerque, N.M.

Reconstruction of the Pajaro River levee has been in the planning stages for more than a decade, and though the exercise wasn't directly related to the effort, local project leaders hoped the attention would generate some momentum.

"We have the lowest level of flood protection of any project in the state of California," Bruce Laclergue, Santa Cruz County's flood control manager, told the group.

Since Pajaro, the town across the river from Watsonville, flooded in 1995, causing more than $50 million in damage, leaders in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties have pushed to upgrade the levee to 100-year protection from its current rating of eight years. But wrangling about the plan among diverse stakeholders, primarily agricultural and environmental interests, has continued for years. Insufficient federal funding to keep the design process and required studies rolling caused more delays.

This year, the budget called for $700,000 in federal funds, but only $280,000 came through, according to Steve Palmisano, Watsonville's water division manager.

A county flood control board on Tuesday approved spending up to $350,000 from a state grant to keep the Corps at work.

Laclergue found encouragement in the Corps' recent release of a 700-page preliminary environmental document, but a draft environmental impact statement isn't scheduled for release until August 2012. Then there will be many more months for the public and regulatory agencies to comment and the Corps to respond.

The project, once scheduled to be completed by now, could still be years away.

Lisa Dobbins, executive director of Action Pajaro Valley, a nonprofit facilitating discussions among various stakeholders, said among the details to nail down are a final design and an agreement on local financing.

The federal government has agreed to cover 75 percent of the project cost, which is estimated at $200 million. The rest must come from state and local sources.

Kurt Keilman, a Corps economist participating in Tuesday's training, said he didn't know of any past exercises that ended up having a direct bearing on an in-the-works project. But he said putting a spotlight on the Pajaro River levee couldn't hurt.

"It never has a negative impact," he said. "The more people who know about a project, the more attention it gets."

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