Editorial: Permanent flood relief is needed

We can understand why residents of Oceano who were flooded out of their homes last month are frustrated, angry and in a mood to point fingers.

Flooding in Oceano has been a problem for years — and the area near the lagoon isn’t the only problem.

An $800,000 study undertaken by the county in 2004 identified $12 million in drainage projects needed in that community alone. And that did not include the areas adjoining the Arroyo Grande and Los Berros creeks, which were the subject of a separate study.

Countywide, the 2004 report recommended $40 million in flood-control projects in the six communities that were studied: Oceano, Nipomo, Cambria, San Miguel, Santa Margarita and Cayucos.

Some progress has been made, particularly in Cambria, Nipomo, San Miguel and Santa Margarita, but the county Public Works Department estimates there is still a huge backlog of projects. In fact, the needs may have risen to $50 million, according to one official.

Clearly, the county doesn’t have the funds available now to step in and tackle that workload. And while local community services districts can take on flood control and drainage responsibilities, they’ve been reluctant to do so due to the same issue — lack of funding and an unwillingness to assume liability.

While it’s possible to ask property owners to approve tax measures for flood control, local officials at every level have been extremely reluctant to do so.

The county does collect special flood-control assessments from residents living along parts of the Los Berros and Arroyo Grande creeks, including residents of the lagoon area that flooded last month. Property owners there approved the current assessments in a 2006 election.

They generate about $350,000 per year. That covers annual maintenance of the channel, but it won’t finance the major improvements needed on the creek’s aging levies.

The county has applied for a $2.2 million grant to begin implementing a waterways management plan meant to strengthen the levies and improve the capacity of the Arroyo Grande Creek.

That will help — but it will not be a direct fix for drainage problems in the lagoon. Like the creek, it, too, becomes clogged by vegetation and sediment.

County Flood Control is working on short-term measures to prevent more flooding in the lagoon area, while also focusing on what needs to be done over the long haul.

To his credit, newly seated South County Supervisor Paul Teixeira has been proactive in meeting with government officials to facilitate a solution, and the county has scheduled a community meeting in April to address residents’ concerns.

These are encouraging steps, though we recognize that after-the-fact responses are small comfort to property owners who saw their homes and many of their treasures ruined by floodwaters.

For what it’s worth, we heartily second their request that responsible agencies coordinate efforts and find a permanent remedy.

We recognize that money is extremely tight, but government at every level cannot afford to ignore infrastructure needs until the economy improves.

The county undertook a major effort in 2004 when it focused on the needs of six flood-prone communities and developed a plan of action.

We believe it’s time to take a comprehensive look back at what’s been accomplished and what more needs to be done, and to set priorities and identify possible sources of funding.

If we don’t, we could have more Oceano lagoons to deal with in the near future.