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River Levee Project Digs In

About 14,000 truckloads of dirt will be removed from the Pajaro River this summer.

A $2 million public works project aimed at making the Pajaro River a safer and more natural waterway begins this month.

Called the Bench Excavation Project, the work is decades in the making. Residents who live in the senior development and other low-lying neighborhoods, as well as local leaders, have long hoped improvements would be made to the levee system to safeguard against flooding during the rainy winter months.

“It should really get going forthrightly this week," Bruce Laclergue, Flood Control Program Manager for Santa Cruz County, said of the project. “Things are gearing up and getting ready to take off.”

Watsonville residents can expect to see thousands of dump trucks motoring through town as the bench excavation project gets underway. An estimated 140,000 cubic yards of sediment—that's about 14,000 dump truck loads—will be removed from the river channel.

That will increase the water flow of the Pajaro River by about 10 percent in the winter, when the area is prone to flooding, and widen the channel by about 2 feet.

"It's going to actually lower the river about a foot,"

The Pajaro River is fenced in by Army Corps of Engineers levees as it flows past Watsonville and Pajaro but always has been prone to flooding. Runoff and sediment chokes the riverbed. That makes the difference between the river bed and the levees a little smaller each year.

In 1995, the levees failed on the Monterey County side, flooding Pajaro and drowning farmland. It caused $95 million in damage.

"This should have been done 17 years ago," Caput said of this summer's bench excavation. The Pajaro River "was rated by the federal government as one of the highest-risk rivers for flooding in the entire country."

Laclergue came to Santa Cruz County as a hydrologist in January 1991 to work with then-Congressman Leon Panetta on a river committee trying to improve the state of the Pajaro River. Laclergue became manager of the county's Flood Control Program in 2002 and starting working on this project "really in earnest" seven or eight years ago.

“It’s been a long time coming, but it’s going to happen," Laclergue said.

The bench excavation project is a stop-gap measure while government officials work on a federal levee improvement project. The levees, constructed in 1949, have been earmarked for upgrades since flooding in the mid-1950s. The plan has been to add 100-year storm protection along the Pajaro River and its tributaries, including Salsipuedes Creek.

But the $200 million project has never been funded (the majority of the funds are supposed to come from the federal government) and .

Laclergue didn't put a time frame on how long this summer's bench excavation project would protect home and the surrounding farmland, but did say that residents, farmers and government officials are excited that this near-term effort is underway.

“It’s been a long time coming, but it’s going to happen," he said, adding, "we are working with the Army Corp to get a better permanent infrastructure out there as well.”

The larger project, which would build up the levees and extend them along tributary creeks, is still years off.

The bench excavation work, "takes the pressure of all the negotiations," Caput said.

This summer, crews will dig out the river channel from approximately Walker Street west to Highway 1. Next summer, the work will head east to Murphy Crossing, near Aromas. Laclergue said they tentatively have received a $2.96 million grant to fund the second year of work.

The entire project will remove 322,000 cubic yards of sediment from the riverbed. It's been signed off on by environmental groups, the state Department of Fish and Game, and county officials from Santa Cruz and Monterey. After all the digging, crews will re-plant the river banks with native vegetation.

“It’ll be a much nicer river," Laclergue. "It’ll be a much safer river from what we know today.”

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