Since a series of storms ravaged Santa Cruz County earlier this year, county officials have been preparing for another winter of heavy rains.
This includes clearing debris from creeks and rivers and repairing three damaged portions of the Pajaro River Levee system.
All of this comes in advance of a massive $400 million rebuild of the levee, which will kick off construction next year.
Pajaro River Flood Management Agency will sign a contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers next month for the long-awaited project, director Mark Strudley told the County Supervisors Tuesday during an update on this year’s flood prevention efforts.
“This is a huge huge milestone,” he said. “We’re actually going to construction. It’s a very exciting time.”
In the midst of the countywide preparation for the El Niño that could drench the county—and already appears to be gaining steam in the southern reaches of California—Santa Cruz County Assistant Public Works Director Steve Wiesner had a message for residents: do what you can to prepare, have an evacuation plan and heed warnings from officials.
“The county is prepared to have a lot of rain this winter,” he said. “We know how bad things can get. We know where to watch. We’ve got a very robust monitoring system, and that if we experience something like we saw in ’23 or 2017, we’re fully aware we’ll be in another flood fight, and we’re up to the task.”
Winter work is well underway.
Work crews are stationing equipment and supply containers in flood-prone areas and have staged 230 feet of muscle wall, which are flood-control devices that divert water. Sandbag distribution began earlier this month
Road crews are receiving swiftwater rescue training.
Work also includes clearing drainage ditches, culverts and other areas along Salsipuedes Creek, College Lake, Blossom Drive and Laken Drive, in addition to an overflow culvert at Kelly Lake.
Crews are raising a section of Spring Valley Road off San Andreas Road to alleviate annual flooding there.
They are also removing log jams and downed trees in Bonny Doon, in Soquel and Aptos creeks, and in Corralitos Creek between Green Valley Road and East Lake Avenue.
Meanwhile, crews are repairing the damaged portions of the levee system.
Strudley said that crews have completed the site north of Pajaro that caused much of the flooding damage.
Two other sites will be complete before the end of November, he said.
In other action, the supervisors discussed potential changes to county ordinance that would encourage participation by under-represented people—particularly young people and South County residents—on volunteer boards and commissions.
The changes include paying a $75 stipend for commissioners to encourage participation and help defray transportation costs.
The suggestions—which will go to the board for final approval in January—came from A Santa Cruz County Like Me, a committee created in 2021 to study the 40 county’s commissions, and the lack of diversity among the people who make up their ranks.
Among the suggestions are creating a youth advisory task force, increasing outreach and informational efforts about the commissions and allowing people as young as 14 to serve on commissions.
The report also showed that many people do not participate because they cannot commute across the county to attend meetings.
“The recommendations we are going to present and ask the board to approve are a step forward in assuring intentional opportunities and access, fostering an environment where everyone can thrive and belong,” Assistant County Administrative Officer Nicole Coburn said.
The report showed that the commissions also lacked renters, Hispanic and Latino people, those with disabilities and high school and college students.
Elaine Johnson, president of Santa Cruz County’s NAACP branch who serves on ASCCLM, said that increasing the diversity of the commissions is vital.
“Those of us who are not invited to the tables are the ones who can actually offer a lot more than the people who already at the tables,” she said. “And I think that the best way to make change is to have different perspectives.”
Karena Koreno, who also serves on ASCCLM, said that she saw first hand how hard it can be to join such an effort, with little information and few people to serve as a mentor.
“It’s quite a daunting task, to be honest,” she said.
Supervisor Manu Koenig said that he and his fellow board members often rely on the county’s commissions to help inform their decisions.
“This is clearly a very important part of our government infrastructure, and we need it to be a vital source of new ideas and suggestions,” he said. “The ideas are out there and we just need to make sure that our commissions are representative and vibrant to assure they are coming to this board and getting implemented in a way that serves everyone’s need in the community.”