A lengthy string of trucks line up along the Pajaro River levee near Highway 1 Wednesday as part of major Pajaro River bench-lands maintenance project. (Photo by Tarmo Hannula).
WATSONVILLE — A project expected to increase the flow of water along the Pajaro River and help reduce the threat of flooding began Tuesday, with dozens of trucks hauling away tons of sediment.
The first phase of the so-called bench excavation project is expected to be finished around Oct. 30, during which time workers will remove sediment from the Pajaro River flood control channel from Highway 1 up to Salsipuedes Creek.
The project will require an estimated 14,000 trips by dump trucks, which will haul the debris to the landfill. The removed debris will be reused for other purposes.
The trucks will travel Walker Street and Union Street, a route designed to have the least impact on traffic, said Bruce Laclergue, flood control program manager for Santa Cruz County.
Those who live in neighborhoods along the excavation site do not need to change their schedules, Laclergue said, since there will be no rerouting of the flow of traffic.
Workers have been preparing the site since July 16 by taking down trees and placing plastic fencing.
Phase 2 of the project, slated to begin during spring 2013, will work its way up Salsipuedes Creek to Murphy's Crossing. Funding for the next phase was uncertain, but recently, a $3 million grant from the California Department of Water Resources allows the phase to move forward, Laclergue said.
The levee marks the boundary between Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, which are in an agreement to split the cost for the project.
The 7.5-mile project as a whole will remove about 300,000 cubic yards of sediment on the banks in the bench areas within the Pajaro River levees.
The purpose of the project is to improve the flood carrying capacity of the levee system while also helping to maintain a shaded low-flow channel for fish passage. Bench excavation will eventually become self-maintaining and will help the river regain its natural ability to move sediment through the river channel system.
About 10 percent of flood water carrying capacity will be gained through the project, which is expected to reduce potential flood heights of the river by 1.2 feet.
Watsonville-based Pavex Construction was awarded the $1.8 million Phase 1 contract in June.
The project is part of larger efforts to upgrade the Pajaro River Levee, which were sparked in 1995 when the river crested the levee and flooded Pajaro.
Proposed upgrades would reinforce or replace some sections of the aging levee system and protect the City of Watsonville and residents who live along the river, as well as hundreds of acres of valuable agricultural land.
But Watsonville City officials have expressed doubt that a proposed $200 million project by the Army Corps of Engineers that would give the city 100-year flood protection will begin any time before 2016.
Santa Cruz County officials say the project has stalled for years, thanks largely to the country’s budget woes, so the city is left with smaller-scale projects meant as temporary fixes for possible flooding along the levees, such as the bench excavation project.
Work along the rivers has been hindered in the past because they are habitat for steelhead, western pond turtles and other wildlife, but Presleigh said the county is working with a biologist to mitigate any damage, and that workers have found no wildlife.
Attempts to upgrade the system date back decades. Built in 1949, the levee breached and caused flooding in 1955, 1958, 1995 and most recently in 1998, when Pajaro was severely damaged and acres of cropland were destroyed.
The levee system stretches from the mouth of the Pajaro River at the Pacific Ocean, crosses Highway 1, passes the city of Watsonville, runs through acres of farmland and then borders Monterey and Santa Cruz counties after passing the bridge at Riverside Drive.
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