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Recent Rain Causes More Damage at Battered Santa Paula Airport

Floodwaters last winter tore away half of the riverside runway and now a breached levee is setting back already delayed repairs.

January 04, 2006|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

To Rowena Mason, this week's rains are a worrying portent for Santa Paula Airport, a landing strip popular with small-craft pilots but vulnerable to the whims of the Santa Clara River.

A cold front that moved out Monday dropped 3 inches of rain and caused $200,000 in damage to a public works project intended to protect the airport from floodwaters, which last winter tore away half of the runway.

The fixes had already been delayed for months by a regulatory dispute, said Mason, president of the private-pilots group that owns the airport. During the dispute, Mason and others warned that time was running out.

"We knew this was going to happen," said Mason as chunks of earth at the airport's eastern edge dropped into roiling brown water below. "For eight months, we've been saying this is an emergency. It doesn't take much water to mess this all up again. I really don't how we're going to get through this winter."

A bulldozer operator Tuesday was restoring a levee to divert water away from the banks that work crews are trying to reinforce with a rock slope. Water breached the levee during the height of Monday's storm, once again chewing away at the airport's banks, said Tom Staben, a contractor hired to do the work.

He estimated that 2,000 yards of soil had washed away. Despite that, repairs can continue as long as the new levee holds, Staben said.

The alternative is to wait until spring, when rains subside, to complete the $5.5-million project, he said.

Mason said she is disappointed that a bureaucratic argument held up a final phase of repairs until November.

After the 75-year-old airport was damaged last February, the county's Watershed Protection District prepared a plan that included shoring up the slope with embedded boulders. The state Department of Fish and Game asked for an environmental review before it would issue a permit, a process that would have delayed the project, said Jeff Pratt, head of the watershed district.

Ventura County supervisors sued the state, arguing that the repairs were an emergency and exempt from extensive environmental review. A judge ruled in the county's favor in late fall and work resumed in November, Pratt said.

However, just 200 feet of the slope had been fortified by the time Monday's storm hit, less than a tenth of the project. County officials said having to fix the new damage would make it more difficult to fund the entire project.

Most of the project is being paid for by a grant from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. But the county is also kicking in money and will probably pick up the tab for this week's damages, officials said.

"It's unfortunate that delays have cost the taxpayers money," said Kathy Long, chairwoman of the county Board of Supervisors, whose district includes the airport. "It will be hard to get more money to finish this. All of the [federal] money is going to the Katrina disaster."

Fish and Game officials could not be reached for comment. But in the past, the agency has argued that emergency exemptions allowing un-permitted work in streambeds no longer apply after the immediate disaster passes.

To Dick Adams, who has flown out of Santa Paula Airport for 30 years, it all seems like a mud fight.

The Ojai grandfather came out to see the damage to his beloved airport.

"I'm all for the environment and everything," Adams said. "But sometimes the tail wags the dog."

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