Politicians fight for flood control

Flood project trickles forward

A year and two weeks ago, downtown Morgan Hill looked less like the sunny, dry disposition it has today and more like a swampy, sopping wet mess. The areas that were flooded by overflow from Llagas Creek after the torrential rains of 2009 and the three feet of rainfall that came in 2008 are vulnerable this year and every year after until the second half of the Llagas Creek Flood Control Prevention project is complete.
A year and two weeks ago, downtown Morgan Hill looked less like the sunny, dry disposition it has today and more like a swampy, sopping wet mess. The areas that were flooded by overflow from Llagas Creek after the torrential rains of 2009 and the three feet of rainfall that came in 2008 are vulnerable this year and every year after until the second half of the Llagas Creek Flood Control Prevention project is complete.

Today, the Santa Clara Valley Water District – just one player in getting the project past the planning stages – will look at a joint use agreement with the city of Morgan Hill to use a half-mile section of West Little Llagas Creek for a trail. Once the flood-control project breaks ground (estimated for 2013), the water district will re-acquire the land to widen the creek basin. Meanwhile, the city and its residents will have access to a new extension of the creek trail.

The city of Morgan Hill and water district who are vested financially in the project have been waiting 50 years for flooding to cease in downtown. The trail is nice to have, Mayor Steve Tate said, but the town would like to see flood-control a reality and not just a theory.

“The timeline has been pushed back since 1954,” Tate said.

The flood-control project remains only 60 percent complete with the Gilroy area protected but Morgan Hill and San Martin still susceptible to floods. Morgan Hill sits in what’s known as a 100-year flood plain, meaning every year there is a 1 percent chance the entire downtown area will end up under water. Flooding in downtown happens almost every year.

A 100-year flood would damage about 1,600 homes and business, and cost about $8 million. In an average year, flooding damages costs about $900,000, according to the water district.

While the city is able to utilize some land for recreation as the project sits idle; the city, water district and the region’s more powerful representatives are determined to see shovels hit the ground. It’s been at a standstill since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was authorized under the Water Resources Development Act of 1999 to construct the final reaches of the project and federal funding has simply not made its way to Morgan Hill.

Tate traveled to Washington D.C. in early September to advocate for the Llagas Creek project.

“We’re working very hard in terms of the getting the authorization redone. So a much larger portion of the funds are the responsibility of the Army Corps,” said Tate, who has made the D.C. trip a part of his mayoral duties.

Currently, the authorization calls for local stakeholders to put in nearly 90 percent of the project’s worth – $120 million – so Tate hopes the authorization is rewritten to lower that percentage. To date, Morgan Hill has put in $3,345,000 into the Llagas project while the water district, the local sponsor, has to date added more than $34 million to the entire project. Though construction can’t begin until more funding is added.

“We need Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) and Mike Honda (D-Campbell) to up the ante,” Tate said.

Morgan Hill’s City Manager Ed Tewes said that flood control is an allowable use of the city’s redevelopment funds, because the original Redevelopment Plan and subsequent amendments identified flooding as a blighting influence in the Redevelopment Project Area. “In fact, the RDA has made several investments in improving flood protection including the Butterfield Channel and others that are not part of the Upper Llagas Project. Llagas is a federal, state and water district responsibility,” Tewes said by e-mail.

Tewes said to avoid further delays the Morgan Hill RDA agreed to advance funds to the water district to do the final design engineering and environmental impact report, which the water district said is necessary before completing the acquisition of 140 parcels of land needed to complete the project.

“The RDA advanced the funds with the expectation that it will be reimbursed from federal funds when available, and that the design will be complete in 2012, and construction to begin in 2013,” Tewes added.

Assemblyman Bill Monning (D-Santa Cruz) said the Bay Area’s members of Congress – Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto), Honda and Sam Farr (D-Salinas) – are also ramping up their effort to be a voice for the Llagas Creek project.

“They are in Washington D.C. and they represent our region,” Monning said. “The problem is that the money hasn’t made it out of Washington.”

The Army Corps’ hands are tied until the appropriations are approved by Congress, but while the water district waits amid advocating its progress it will continue to acquire parcels of the land necessary for the construction phase. Morgan Hill’s Congressman Jerry McNerney (D-Pleasanton) has said he will make sure Washington D.C. knows this issue isn’t going to just fade away.

“The congressman shares the frustrations with how slow its moving,” said Nick Holder, McNerney’s chief of staff. Earlier this year, McNerney convened a meeting with the Army Corps to “keep the pressure on them to move forward. He has every intent to keep advocating this. This is absolutely one of his top priorities.”

In a face-to-face attempt to lobby for federal support, water district directors Richard Santos, Patrick Kwok and South County’s at-large representative Cy Mann made a trip to Washington D.C. Oct. 5 through Oct. 10.

Mann said they met with Let Mon Lee the under secretary of the Army Corps and the chief of staffs for Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, Lofgren and Honda. Mann said they were voicing the same concerns local officials have about Llagas: let’s move forward.

“We told them we are here because our constituents need this help. We still have flooding. This excuse that the Army Corps need another study is unacceptable. They need to close the studies and get on with it. The only thing consistent (in their studies is) that ‘there’s flooding in Morgan Hill,'” Mann said. “I’m looking for accountability.”

He said that as soon as Thursday evening Lee was going to call with an update on where the Army Corps stands and whether or not they’ve made progress.

“How come it has taken all of these years? The seriousness of it should have really, really been advocated and followed up on in the way it’s being done now,” Mann said.

Water board Director Rosemary Kamei did not travel to Washington D.C. but said the Llagas project remains her No. 1 priority and that despite her departure from the water district board in December she will continue to see the project through.

Getting the funding to finish flood-control of Llagas Creek, “will require constant pressure by Morgan Hill residents, property owners, and businesses to ensure that the federal government lives up to its promise,” Tewes wrote.

Leave your comments