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Pajaro River flood control project moves closer...

Donna Jones, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Pajaro River flood control project moves closer: Funding split between Santa Cruz and Monterey counties unresolved

WATSONVILLE A project to reduce flooding risk on the Pajaro River is getting closer with the release of 460-page environmental study.

What's known as the bench excavation project has been in the works since 2005, and calls for removing 32,000 dump truck loads of sediment from the river while restoring native habitat along a 7.5-mile stretch through the city and surrounding countryside.

Completion of the study by the Santa Cruz County Planning Department puts the estimated $8 million project on track to start this summer, though not all funding is in place.

It's significant, said Bruce Leclergue, county flood control manager. It means all the planning work is done, all the permitting work is done.

County officials have been under pressure to do something about potential flooding as a long-anticipated upgrade of the river's aging levee languishes. City leaders in particular have been worried about the threat to neighborhoods filled with seniors and the poor. The bench project was conceived as an interim step.

We've been disappointed, but it looks like we've made some progress, said Councilwoman Nancy Bilicich, who represents the retirement communities on the city's eastern edge along the river.

It's unimaginable that something doesn't happen, said Councilman Daniel Dodge, who, as mayor, pushed for action during a tour of the levee by city and county officials in November.

Public Works officials have pinned delays on the complexity of the project.

It's more than taking sand out, Leclergue said. In order to do that, we have to leave a better situation than is there presently, and we're doing that.

The excavation will allow the river to meander, creating a more natural setting for fish, and removed trees will be employed to create habitat. Native plants will be used to revegetate the river banks when the digging's done. Plans also call for the more than 300,000 cubic yards of sediment to be put to other uses, including a tidal restoration project at Elkhorn Slough, burial of trash at county and city dumps, and for fill at a proposed business park on the city's west side.

Leclergue said he expects to receive a state permit in the next two weeks and a federal permit by early May.

That leaves just funding. The county secured a state grant for $4.6 million, and expects to get an answer on an application for another $3 million state grant April 6.

But we can't count on that, Leclergue said. So the county has budgeted $1.7 million for the project in the 2012-13 fiscal year in case the grant doesn't come through, and is hoping Monterey County, which lies on the south side of the river, will come up with matching funds.

But Monterey County officials, who met Tuesday to discuss the project, aren't sure they should pay half since they say more than 90 percent of the excavation is on the Santa Cruz side.

The bottom line is there still needs to be some negotiating, said Dave Chardavoyne, interim general manager of the Monterey County Water Resources Agency.

Leclergue questioned Monterey County's excavation calculation, but said, more importantly, the work will benefit each side equally.

Chardavoyne and Supervisor Lou Calcagno said Monterey County supports the project.

Calcagno represents the town of Pajaro and the adjacent farmland, which sustained millions of dollars in damages when the river ruptured the levee and caused catastrophic flooding in March 1995.

After years of delays on a levee upgrade, he no longer has confidence that a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project will happen. He's putting his faith in the bench project, and hoping no other hurdles will emerge to prevent breaking ground this year.

It will do the best we can possibly deliver, and it's under local control, Calcagno said.

Leclergue said the project could start as early as July, and if funding remains an issue, could be phased over two years.

Follow Sentinel reporter Donna Jones on Twitter @DonnaJonesSCS

Pajaro River

Flood Control Project

WHAT: Environmental report on bench excavation project

WHEN: Deadline for public comment is 5 p.m. April 6

WHERE: Reference Pajaro River Bench Excavation Project and send comments to Santa Cruz County Planning Department, Attention: Todd Sexauer, 701 Ocean St., 4th floor, Santa Cruz, CA 75060.

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