These past few days have been filled with lots of rains, which for us here in the Pájaro Valley immediately triggers fears of flooding. Such fears came in the sound of ominous emergency beeps from my cell phone around 7 am this morning, warning of flash floods via some National Weather Service message that I never signed up for. Living on East Beach near the Salsipuedes my first thoughts were something along the lines of Oh crap.
Luckily, the rains are going to die off late this afternoon and shouldn’t lead to flooding, but as a paranoid County staffer I went out to various points along the River to take some measurements. Under the Pájaro Bridge on Main and Riverside, the river got to 15 feet and fortunately had lots of capacity to spare. More unsettling was the Salsipuedes Bridge which reached the 24 foot mark of a possible 35 feet. Even more worrisome, however, was the Salsipuedes Creek at East Lake and College which didn’t have accessible ruler/scales to peer at but was approximately seven or eight feet from the surface and adjacent fruterías.
Whereas the strong storms of late are extremely worrisome, their ability to fill in the varied curvatures our waterways has provided valuable insight into the strengths and weaknesses of our levee structure. As a case in point, the main stem of the Pájaro River has become far better fortified by the bench excavation, a project which took nearly two decades to finally come into realization.
The Salsipuedes Creek, on the other hand, has received no such bench excavation and given that a number of adjacent downtown and senior village homes were built in the flood zone along the creek, it is a source of great fear to many. The sight of it rising was reassuring for nobody. Many representatives from the Zone 7 Flood Board and City of Watsonville have rightfully expressed great urgency to see such similar actions to that of the bench excavation come to realization.
However, as the pictures of the Salsipuedes Creek at East Lake and College Road demonstrate, the danger of flooding along the Salsipuedes is much greater before the creek ever gets to the senior village and downtown. If heavy rains in Corralitos drain down our way, the levee would more likely bust somewhere between Green Valley and East Lake in the more agricultural areas. As has been expressed by obviously concerned farmers, this scenario does not play out very swimmingly for them. Of particular concern is the problem of fallen trees and debris that block the passage of water beyond the East Lake Bridge and down the lower Salsipuedes into the Pájaro.
To minimize such concerns, Santa Cruz County 4th District Supervisor Greg Caput has worked closely with Environmental Health officials to ensure that the pile-ups of wood debris impeding water flow can be addressed in environmentally friendly ways. Santa Cruz County, California is essentially ground zero in terms of environmental regulation and with good reason as we are home to some of the most beautiful terrain anywhere. Wooden debris in waterways is protected by California law, particularly as it pertains to sites of endangered species, such as Coho Salmon who swim upstream during spawning season and take refuge in these log piles.
As a resolution amenable to all, the County has devised a policy which leaves the wooden logs in place but which calls for these logs to be partitioned into smaller pieces so as to continue providing needed habitat to Salmon and in the event of increased rains allow for relieved water passage without creating the same kind of flow impediments that in-tact fallen trees produce. Nonetheless, if and when such piles do in fact significantly obstruct water flow, the County maintenance staff has cranes ready and able to remove this wooden debris.
Also of concern is the water draining from behind Our Lady Help of Christians Parish in the area comprising College Lake and the little known ditch behind Laken Drive which drains all the way from Pinto Lake to the Salsipuedes. This area, predominantly that of College Lake, is not managed by the County or City but is an autonomous Reclamation District comprised of local landowners. Unfortunately, the Reclamation District has a tough terrain to work with that extends all the way to Paulsen Road and constantly threatens lowland agriculture as well. Further complicating the situation is a severely outdated pump system intended to drain College Lake water into the Salsipuedes Creek as well. As you can see from the provided picture, this isn’t working out so well as waters is spilling over the makeshift sandbags and back into the quasi-lake.
Another point of great frustration is the sand bar at the mouth of the River as it drains out to the Pacific. This sand bar becomes a nightmare for Pájaro Dunes residents and beachgoers as the only entry point on Beach Road becomes flooded in heavy rains. The County of Santa Cruz is once again prevented by way of California statute from pre-emptively breaching the sand bar for environmental reasons until the high water mark reaches a certain point or the water breaks through naturally.
In short, although officials often bicker back and forth between the City of Watsonville, Santa Cruz County, Monterey County, San Benito County and Santa Clara County, there are a whole host of problems that need to be fixed and can really only be done when the Federal Government finally provides us with desperately needed money in the not so small amount of a quarter billion dollars or so. Whether we like it or not, there are no local piggy banks capable of oinking us out funds for true projects of improvement at this juncture. Fortunately, however, we have in fact done a number of aforementioned short-term fixes with grant moneys and creative maintenance. Another great community accomplishment to address the problems the River poses has been that of Teen Challenge Monterey Bay filling the void of homeless services (funded in part by a donation of $8,250 from Greg Caput!) for community members, many of whom frequently resort to sleeping along the River or under its bridges.
It’s absolutely great that we have had the short-term project of the Pájaro River Bench Excavation, but we absolutely need the big bucks. We need to ensure safety along the Salsipuedes Creek downtown/senior village portion, but we must also provide protection against the more imminent threat upstream and must do so without infringing the safety of the residents of Pájaro and so on and so forth. We need the big bucks that only Obama and local (Carmel) boys Leon Panetta and Sam Farr can give. If all goes well, we should have our paperwork made ready for eligibility of federal funding in the next two years and must continue pressing Obama, Panetta and Sam Farr to not forget about our Pájaro River, formerly distinguished as the worst waterway in the United States and despite the recent drought that should persist into and beyond Spring remains ever-dangerous. We too would like sweet Carmel caramel dollars for our River!
The current storm has presented the danger of flooding throughout Northern California, including flooding of the San Lorenzo and Soquel Rivers. For more information on specific up-to-date readings, please visit the County of Santa Cruz Department of Public Works website http://santacruz.onerain.com/home.php; USGS tracking of the Pájaro River http://waterdata.usgs.gov/ca/nwis/uv/?site_no=11159000&PARAmeter_cd=00065,00060; and the good old Weather Channel http://www.weather.com/weather/today/Santa+Cruz+CA+USCA1020.