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Eco-Friendly Method of Flood Control Eyed in Ventura County

Officials will consider studying the use of rock mounds instead of concrete walls to fight erosion along Santa Paula Creek.

September 23, 2003|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

It's low-tech, as flood-control projects go. But that's the point, said Jeff Pratt, head of Ventura County's Watershed Protection District.

Why pour walls of concrete to control erosion along upper Santa Paula Creek when simple rocks placed along the streambed will do?

Ventura County supervisors will consider that question today when they decide whether to join with the Army Corps of Engineers to study the $5-million project.

The proposal illustrates a new approach being taken by the county to harness floodwaters that occasionally ravage the region, from suburban tracts in the eastern part of the county to the lemon orchards of the Santa Clara River Valley.

While protection of human life and property is still paramount, county officials are putting greater emphasis on preserving habitat for wildlife, Pratt said.

The most visible sign of the shift came last year, when the Board of Supervisors changed the name of the flood-control agency to the Ventura County Watershed Protection District.

By stressing environmentally friendly solutions, the district can more easily win government grants, Pratt said. In the last two years, the district has received $9 million in state and federal funds, he said.

Pratt and his staff also work hard to get residents, environmentalists, business leaders and municipal officials to talk about solutions. That works better than battling it out in court, Pratt said. Equally important has been getting flood-control veterans, weaned on efficient concrete channels, to think differently about their jobs, he said.

"Some people say the [flood-control district] name change is like putting earrings on a pig," said Pratt, who has shepherded many changes in county policy since arriving three years ago. "But it's a lot more than that. It's about a change in vision."

Ventura County farmers lost $31 million in crops during the El Nino storms of 1998. Santa Paula Creek recorded its highest flows in two decades, ripping out orchards and prompting an evacuation of 2,000 homes.

Since then, the Army Corps of Engineers has completed a 1.6-mile flood-control channel that safely dumps floodwaters into the Santa Clara River. On the drawing board for at least 30 years, it is composed primarily of 20-foot-high concrete walls and grouted rock. After years of environmental litigation, the project also included a fish ladder to help the endangered steelhead trout migrate upstream.

The latest project for Santa Paula Creek puts the principles of watershed protection to work, Pratt said.

Rocky groins, or mounded rock, placed along the streambed at staggered distances would serve as speed bumps, directing flowing water toward the center of the channel. In between the mounds, native vegetation would be planted to encourage wildlife, Pratt said.

The project would lie along a 6,000-foot-long portion of the creek, stretching from Forest Drive to Bridge Road. Bank erosion is threatening a school, ranches and several homes in the area, he said.

Lisa Bullock, 31, whose home backs up to Santa Paula Creek, said she welcomes the study. Previous storms ate away half of her one-acre lot, she said.

Much of the lost land was restored when the county brought in fill dirt and boulders to build it back up. But Bullock knows it is only a short-term solution.

"My neighbors have been there for 30 years and they say they've seen boulders as big as Volkswagens rolling down the creek during storms," she said. "It's comforting they're doing something about it."

About 20 of the more than 30 property owners along the project site have signed on.

Supervisor Kathy Long, whose district includes the proposed project, said four long years of work are finally paying off. She called the proposal a cost-effective way to deal with erosion problems.

"The willingness of the homeowners to sit at the table has been invaluable," she said.

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