Levee repairs left in limbo

County seeks exemption from levee liability

LEVEE BREACH Winter rains brought excessive flooding to Lovers Lane in Hollister when the levee system failed.

County residents affected by winter flooding spoke during Tuesday’s San Benito County Board of Supervisors meeting as officials discussed how to pay to fix a broken levee system.

Unrelenting rainfall last winter overwhelmed a Pacheco Creek levee system, flooding country roads and creating havoc for residents along Lovers Lane, as well as parts of Shore Road and San Felipe Road.

Before the bulk of the storms hit county inspection teams discovered on January 12 a large breach in the Pacheco Creek levee. Multiple breaches would occur during subsequent storms.

James Pulfer, from the Resource Management Agency, said there were two significant breaches to the levee system, a 104-foot long breach and an 80-foot long breach.

“The most significant breach is on the south side of the levee with the 104-foot breach,” Pulfer said. “That breach directly flows across Lovers Lane. The breach is such that if there were significant flows again the creek could reroute.”

County supervisors considered three staff recommendations on how to fund critical levee repairs: the county could partner with the United States Department of Agriculture (who would contribute $413,100), the county would go it alone and fund the whole project or there would be a no-cost option, which meant no repairs are made.

The latter, no-build alternative, spared the county liability, but was not popular with the board. An agreement with the USDA could stick the county with having to operate and maintain the levee system in perpetuity.

Operation and maintenance of the levee system, which runs through multiple private properties, is estimated between $10,000 to $15,000 annually.

Assuming no delays, repairs could begin in December and finish two months later in February.

But if weather similar to last winter’s is on the horizon, it could restrict work and could result in an extended construction timeline.

The second option, where the county is the lone funder, offers a quicker turnaround at a higher cost.

In this scenario, work on the repairs would begin in October and conclude around December, barring bad weather.

The county would have to pay an estimated $491,500, but by being the sole funder, it would free the county from constraints associated with federal and state funding programs including the USDA agreement, according to staff.

Mahassa Altafi, a Dara Farms property owner on Lovers Lane, addressed the issue of private property and liability.

“First and foremost, it’s not a private issue it’s a public issue,” Altafi said. “The county is here to serve the public. It’s affected not just my property, but the roads and people’s lives in other areas. It’s not a private issue and to say that is absurd. It’s affecting the public and I feel like the county should be responsible. To even have the possibility of not fixing the levee is atrocious.”

Supervisor Mark Medina was quick to denounce the no-build alternative.

“If we go the last route we’re going to be doing the same thing over and over again,” Medina said. “The problem we have is if no one fixes these levees, what’s going to happen next year when it rains again? It’s going to flood. We’re going to be in the same boat. We’re going to spend a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of county resources when we’re not taking care of the problem. As elected officials, we do need to make decisions.”

Michele Schroeder, a resident and property owner on Lovers Lane, encouraged the board to reject the no-build option and spoke about the flooding last winter.

“The quality of life there has been impacted,” Schroeder said. “The road was inundated, it basically cut Lovers Lane in half.”

She said something needed to be done to get through the bureaucratic red tape.

“We need help. Nobody knows how to organize this. There’s not a lot of people who remember how the Pacheco Stormwater District worked. We need help with that. I think people are interested in solving the problem.”

Years ago, the Pacheco Stormwater District, a board composed of landowners around the Pacheco Creek, oversaw the private levee system, but has been inactive for some time.

“It’s important to me to see the landowners participate and re-energize that district board,” Supervisor Jerry Muenzer said.

Board Chairman Jaime De La Cruz said he supported fixing the levees, but wanted to see participation from affected residents, citing a risk factor with no future guarantees.

“We definitely don’t want to see any of the homeowners suffer from those levees if it’s going to happen again, but we need to ensure that this discussion of public and private is discussed in terms of risk and liabilities,” De La Cruz said. “That’s the number one thing.”

Supervisor Robert Rivas advocated fixing the levee, but said the county needed to work within its means and be fiscally responsible. He encouraged staff to engage with affected residents.

“I certainly won’t approve moving forward with any option unless we’re indemnified,” Rivas said. “These levees aren’t county owned or public property. That’s the only way I move forward.”

Resident Ken Perry said he spent $50,000 of his money to fix issues with water coming through a levee breach on his property.

“I have one breach on my property and above me there’s two or three other breaches,” Perry said. “Water comes through and has damaged everything over there. I think it would be a shame if this board does not find a way to fix this.”

Lovers Lane resident Candice Hooper told supervisors that if the county didn’t spend money to fix the levee they’d end up spending it in emergency services.

“Fix the levee and we’ll get the rest done, but we’re running out of time because the rains are coming,” Hooper said. “We’re going to be in a world of hurt if we get hit again and it’s going to cost this county a heck of a lot more than you’re quoting.”

After discussions, Rivas made a motion to not choose a funding option, but to contact impacted residents about indemnification to exclude the county from potential liability.

“I don’t know how I can make a decision today,” Rivas said. “The only way I could approve going forward with the county option is if I have assurances the county is not going to be sued if we take responsibility for cleaning out those levees.”

The motion passed 3-1 with Supervisor Medina dissenting. Supervisor Anthony Botelho recused himself from the discussion and vote because he owns property on San Felipe Road. Chairman De La Cruz said he’d call a special meeting Tuesday if necessary to help speed the process along.

Leave your comments