Government / Politics

As county waits for federal funds, roads and levees will not be repaired

Repairs to levee systems near Lovers Lane are on hold and FEMA will only pay to restore roads to previous conditions

While the flood waters may have receded around Lovers Lane and along Pacheco Creek, the problems they caused remain and it doesn’t look like they will be repaired anytime soon, according to Kevin O’Neill, of the San Benito County Office of Emergency Services, who gave his latest update to the Board of Supervisors on March 14.

Where the breached levee is concerned, O’Neill said the county approached the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to leverage the Emergency Watershed Protection Program that might pay as much as 75 percent of the cost of repairs.

“We’re waiting for final approval before we can break ground,” he said. “If we were to start before that, we would lose that funding source. We went out to bid for the levees to be repaired and we got no responses from any vendors.”

The county has been attempting to work with the Don Chapin Company to do the work, but O'Neill said he wanted it to be clear that the county actually has no responsibility or authority to fix the levees because they are privately-owned. He said, however, that the USDA program allows the county to assist the residents on an emergency basis because the breaks do pose a threat to property and life.

As for the roads, he said Lovers Lane is a mess and will remain so for the foreseeable future. He said crews put down asphalt to make the road somewhat more passable.

“But it makes no sense to fix that road until those levees are fixed because if it floods again we’ll have thrown money down the drain,” O’Neill said, then gave a rundown how FEMA and state funds for the Disaster Recovery Act work. “They are all based on a reimbursement system. They don’t cut checks and then tell us to go do our work and they only pay to bring roads back to how they were pre-disaster.”

Supervisor Mark Medina asked O’Neill about the vendors’ non-response to the RFP. O’Neill told him that even after personally contacting contractors with whom the county has relations, none could help.

“All the contractors are stretched extremely thin,” O’Neill said. “There’s a lot of work in Monterey County, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties. Fixing these levies is a pretty touchy situation because no contractor wants to fix them and then they fail and it comes back on them, liability-wise.”

Medina also asked how FEMA could determine what the road conditions were prior to the storms. O’Neill said the state and federal governments are looking at the flooding as two separate storms. He said that after the storms, the county, along with representatives from FEMA and the state Office of Emergency Services, conducted a preliminary damage assessment.

“That was conducted last week and the FEMA representative pulled up satellite imagery and was looking at all the roads, and that’s how they were able to tell what the roads were like,” O'Neill said. “A road that was not well maintained will not receive the same funding as a recently-built road.”

Medina also asked if there was a timeline for possibly receiving the USDA funds. O’Neill said the last word he had was that he should have heard something March 10. He said he reached out to USDA March 13 and has not heard back from the agency.

Supervisor Anthony Botelho encouraged O’Neill to make every effort to go after any possible funding to be used to fill potholes.

“I (his district) had bad roads to begin with, but the heavy truck traffic that was diverted off of state highways into rural roads made a bad situation unbearable,” he said and then commented about the levies. “It doesn’t need to be fixed tomorrow now that we’re at the end of the rainy season, but it does need to be fixed before the next rainy season.”

Botelho disputed O’Neill’s assertion that the levee repairs were hampered because they were on private property.

“There’s so much government red tape and oversight, and it’s a waterway, we don’t own that property,” Botelho said. “There needs to be some level of standardization as far as what the levee repairs ought to be. It should be reasonable to expect they would hold during an average storm. I hope we can get some clarity as far as what we’re going to do and when we’re going to do it.”

During public comments, long-time resident George Venech commented that the status of Lovers Lane should remain as an agenda item for every supervisors’ meeting until all issues have been addressed. He said the county has been responsive about the levees and roads, but there are other drainage issues that he has discussed with the county to no avail.

“The road is an open wound, it’s almost impassible, and I just don’t see any action at this point,” he said. “It’s difficult to patch potholes when they’re full of water. Water is going to stay there until somebody comes out and addresses the non-levee drainage issues, the old trench system. We’re asking for the county to do a one-time cleaning of those trenches.”

Venech said a pond located between San Felipe Road and Lovers Lane is artesian and continually flowing through the trenches he claims were illegally dug in 1997 by a nearby farming operation.

“That water has flowed through my property since 1997, and didn’t stop until this summer,” he said. “It took six years of drought to stop that pond from flowing.”

He went on to say the county needs to address the drainage system on the west side of Lovers Lane to allow water to move through the area.

“Until that gets done, that section of the road is going to remain wet and you’re not going to be able to repair it,” Venech said, adding that there is a well that has been flowing since 2003, and that even after the county sent a letter to the property owner to fix it, nothing has been done.

“I see other counties getting their money for road repairs,” he concluded. “So, I’m kind of asking that this becomes an agenda item until we see things happen out on Lovers Lane.”

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]