Oceano flooding – global warming or county airport?
January 26, 2011
It has been over a month since the flooding in Oceano on Sunday, December 19. The neighborhood just south/southwest of the Oceano County Airport was particularly hard hit and neighbors are still dealing with the aftermath including the reconstruction of their homes.
Adding insult to injury, the “sheet flowing” storm water off the county airport induced the failure of all four critical pumps at the sanitation district facility allowing the release of hundreds of thousands of gallons of untreated sewage into area streets and homes.
The failure of the sanitation district pumps was caused by surface water flows that inundated the facility site and shorted out the electrical system that powered the pumps. The pumps did not fail from the added in-flow and infiltration (i.e. storm water) that flowed into the sanitary sewer collection system leading to the treatment site.
Nor was the culprit the often problematic Arroyo Grande Creek which did not overtop the levy during those late December rains. The SLO County Public Works department has blamed Meadow Creek and the inability to join the Arroyo Grande Creek in breaching a sand bar at the shoreline for backing the storm water up for miles north along Highway 1. Add questions about the infamous Sand Canyon flap-gates at the confluence of Arroyo Grand Creek and Meadow Creek and you have all of the makings of a good murder mystery.
By way of history, in 1946, then 17 year old Harold Guitton graded the first runway where today the Oceano County Airport (L52) is. Until then, airplanes used the beach for many years to take off and land which proved to be less than ideal. By 1950 the County of San Luis Obispo had acquired the land in question and the following year, Madonna Construction built the airport much as it sits today at an elevation of 14 feet above sea level. Also, in 1958 the first significant improvements were made to the Arroyo Grande Creek channel to address chronic flooding issues. Years later, in 1966 the original sewer plant was built and today is known as South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District that serves Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano.
As has been reported, the storm of December 19th was not even a 10–year event, so why all the problems? A review of the 2004 Drainage and Flood Control Study for Oceano prepared by the San Luis Obispo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District reveals a solution that has never been implemented. Characterized as a “Near Term Project” the report recommends the construction of a terminal disposal facility on 5 acres of County owned airport land to collect storm water.
The property in question was and continues to be occupied as an RV storage facility leased by a private company in the south county. The construction of such a terminal basin would accommodate surface flows from portions of Oceano including the 13th Street and Highway 1 (Front Street) flood zone. In 2004, the cost of the solution was estimated at $1,753,000 as compared to the $600,000 or more in damages sustained by Oceano residents from just one flooding episode. How many times are the residents going to be hit before a fix is implemented? It is ironic that the residents would have to pay for any drainage solution in accordance with a county policy set forth in a 1968 resolution (68-223).
Yet it appears without any solid corrective action the people will continue to pay again and again and again without any financial assistance from local, state or federal governments. The county appears to have the highest degree of culpability with regard to the reoccurring flooding.
Additional complexities arise because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has regulations that restrict the ponding of water on or near an airport due to concerns over hazardous wildlife attractants. In other words, due to risks associated with “bird strikes” anything that would attract birds is not allowed. Another regulatory snafu is that virtually all of the land on the coast side of Highway 1 is not part of any drainage plan nor is it part of the County Flood Control Zone 1-1A. Most notably the entire airport and Meadow Creek remain unaddressed in the context of storm water management.
To further complicate matters, the entirety of Meadow Creek leading up to the flap gates near the ocean, falls within the jurisdiction of the State Department of Parks and Recreation. At a time when state parks attention and resources are being consumed by the OHV particulate matter it is unlikely to expect any help from them.
It is human nature to forget the past, especially when it is painful, and indeed folks are already beginning to forget about the affects of the December storm. Meetings are scheduled to further discuss the situation. The first meeting is to be held on February 15th in Oceano as part of a special Zone 1-1A session and also in April where San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Paul Teixeira will hold a community workshop on drainage and flooding in Oceano.
Until the County examines the effects of the Oceano Airport on regional flooding the problem will persist indefinitely. The physical presence of the airport acts as a dam and prevents natural storm water flows from reaching the ocean.
It is time for the community of Oceano to broaden a discussion of what the airport does and does not do for the community. As the owners of the airport and the agency responsible for much of the flooding that occurred, San Luis Obispo County must be held accountable and acknowledge that their land is principally responsible for the poor drainage and flooding issues that will continue to plague the community until something substantive is done. So far only property damage has been sustained, next time the flooding occurs someone may actually get sick. What then?
Jeff Edwards is a land planner and 35-year San Luis Obispo County resident who has worked to stimulate a conversation within Oceano and beyond concerning the redeployment of the county owned airport property. As is, the Oceano Airport exacerbates flooding, limits public access to the beach and frustrates building projects by application of airport noise and safety restrictions. The residents of Oceano realize all of these impacts and more with little to no benefit to the community itself.