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Pajaro flood protection project pushed back...

Donna Jones, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Pajaro flood protection project pushed back: Environmental, logistical and financial hurdles delay excavation of river channel

WATSONVILLE -- A project to reduce the risk of flooding along the Pajaro River in advance of levee reconstruction won't begin this year as anticipated.

The removal of 320,000 cubic yards -- 32,000 dump truck loads -- of dirt along the river has long been bogged down in the complex navigation of permits, design and funding.

John Presleigh, director of Santa Cruz County Public Works, said what's known as the bench excavation is getting close and may go out to bid in the fall, but that's when construction was expected to start. Now Presleigh said it's unlikely much if any work will get done before the onset of the rainy season.

"We thought we could pull it off," he said. "But we're not quite there yet."

Presleigh said at best, he anticipates some clearing of vegetation this year with excavation starting in 2012.

The project has posed environmental, logistical and financial challenges, he said. Public Works has navigated the permit processes of several regulatory agencies, secured a $4.6 million state grant to help pay for the estimated $7 million project, and found dumping grounds for the massive amount of excavated dirt.

But design has taken longer than expected due to complex mitigations required to meet environmental regulations.

Public Works is also trying to figure out how to move the dirt to five dumping sites in the Pajaro Valley and North Monterey County. Trucks will require 32,000 trips. So the department is exploring using rail for some of the transport.

"This is just not digging a hole in the ground," Presleigh said. "It's a very big complicated project."

But people living along the river, and its tributary, Salsipuedes Creek, have been waiting a long time for flood protection.

Planning for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers upgrade of the 62-year-old levee system started just after a 1995 flood that caused more than $50 million in damage to the town of Pajaro and surrounding agricultural land. The goal is to provide 100-year flood protection, which means a 1 percent chance of a flood in any given year. The current rating of eight years is among the lowest level of protection in the state, according to county Flood Control Manager Bruce Laclergue.

Disputes over plans and insufficient federal dollars have kept the levee project on hold for years.

The bench excavation project, in the works since 2005, is expected to provide some relief by increasing the carrying capacity of the river.

Watsonville Councilwoman Nancy Bilicich represents hundreds of people, including many seniors, who live along Salsipuedes Creek, close to where it empties into the river. She was unhappy with the delay.

"That means we have to go through another winter," Bilicich said. "In my opinion, that's not a good thing. We need to get this thing going."

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