Thursday, July 13, 2006
As soon as she hears the words “Carr Lake” and “flood,” Jo Brugge abruptly steps away from the mobile home park’s lobby window and pulls a file from a nearby cabinet. “Here, you’ll want to look at these,” says Brugge, office secretary at the Sherwood Lake Mobile Home Park in Salinas.
The file contains photographs shot in February 1998, during one of the heaviest recorded rainfalls in Salinas’ history. The images are sobering. The mobile home park is knee-deep in water. Some of the park’s elderly residents, all of whom were forced to evacuate their flood-damaged homes for 10 days, sit in rowboats, floating in the water near their properties.
That was then. Today the mobile home park looks pristine and quite dry. But the threat of another flood sacking the small community is an inescapable fact of life. That’s because the mobile home park, along with a large number of neighboring apartments, hotels and businesses situated along the intersection of Kern and East Market streets, sits next door toSalinas’ primary flood path: Carr Lake.
Carr Lake hasn’t actually been a lake since the 1920s, when it was drained to make room for more farmland. Today, it’s a 500-acre low-lying expanse of farm fields smack in the center of Salinas that fills up with water during heavy rainy seasons. For decades, the site has played a critical role in preventing flooding in nearby neighborhoods. The site also holds an important reclamation ditch, maintained by Monterey County. The reclamation ditch is a manmade creek that catches more than 90 percent of Salinas’ storm water runoff, which passes through Carr Lake as it winds westward to Elkhorn Slough.
Carr Lake’s future is at a crossroads. Again. While there have been several attempts to modify the Carr Lake property since the 1970s, critical factors are today converging in the center of Salinas that will likely force city officials to try something new.
That urgency has everything to do with Salinas’ largest planned development. City officials want to build approximately 11,000 new homes over the next 20 years on a large swath of farmland bordering East Boronda Road to the south, San Juan Grade Road to the west, and Williams Road to the east.
The developments will be located directly upstream from Carr Lake, a fact that could spell trouble for central Salinas. More development means more impervious surfaces—such as concrete and asphalt—will be laid over the Salinas Valley floor. That, in turn, will create more water runoff racing down into Carr Lake during heavy winter rains, increasing the likelihood of flooding at Carr Lake and much of central Salinas.
It’s a serious problem that Salinas, Monterey County and state officials have been mulling over for years.
To mitigate runoff and water quality control issues, Salinas officials are now studying ways to keep most of their new developments’ water runoff on site, as required under state law. The future homes, roads and commercial structures are planned to be built on 2,450 acres of unincorporated Monterey County farmland. While that land isn’t city property yet, Bob Richelieu, planning manager for Salinas, says the city has submitted a preliminary application to incorporate the land into the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO).
The idea that city engineers can prevent all of the new development’s water runoff from flowing downstream—water which will be contaminated with oil from cars and other pollutants—sounds promising in theory. But even Carl Niizawa, a deputy city engineer in Salinas, says that it’s likely that the system won’t be foolproof. “You can have low-impact developments, but you still need flood control,” Niizawa says. “Because low-impact developments [like the one planned] will capture runoff from smaller storm events, but not as much when you have a big storm event.”
A proposed solution to the big-storm scenario is to increase Carr Lake’s capacity to hold water, and therefore prevent any storm water runoff from flowing downstream too quickly. That’s precisely what a growing group of planners and visionaries are attempting to do.
Kurt Hunter, Carr Lake coordinator at CSU-Monterey Bay, is the only paid member working to find a way to turn Carr Lake into a regional park. He’s got ambitious plans for the park.
The idea that Hunter is pushing—a park the size of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park—has been endorsed in Salinas’ general plan.
“The regional park would address a whole slew of issues,” Hunter says. “We could have some wetlands restored on the site, which would actually help purify runoff water before it’s released into the reclamation ditch and to the Monterey Bay. And we could increase Carr Lake’s capacity to hold water as a flood basin.”
A park at Carr Lake would also provide Salinas residents a green city center with abundant space for needed recreation opportunities and sports fields. “Salinas is a park-poor city compared to national standards,” says Gary Karnes, a longtime supporter of a park at Carr Lake. “We could have both a fantastic flood control system and a big park.”
Niizawa agrees. “Carr Lake is a great big wonderful opportunity,” he says.
Making the idea a reality, however, is not going to be easy.
Carr Lake land isn’t for sale. It’s currently owned by three Japanese-American families (Higashi, Hibino and Ikeda families) who have worked the land since before World War II.
Bob Taylor is a lawyer for the Higashi family, currently in talks with the City over the uncertain future of their lands.
“It appears to us there are as many problems that confer in Carr Lake as there are streambeds,” says Taylor, referring to the flooding and water quality issues. “And it appears to us that solutions to those problems means the end of our business. If you do anything in Carr Lake, it will be impossible to farm there.”
Taylor says if it were up to the Higashi family, as well as the other two families, they would continue to farm on the land. The three families were among the thousands of American Japanese who were interned in US concentration camps during World War II. All three had to fight to regain their property after the war.
But, says Taylor, money might motivate the families to sell.
“The city of Salinas and others have indicated to us that they think the timing is right to come up with solutions to a number of problems,” Taylor says. “Given the reality, we’re going to cooperate if a solution can be found...it’s no secret that each one of the three families will have to be compensated.”
Coming up with money, both to compensate the families and to actually build the park, poses another major hurdle for park-supporters.
Currently, for example, the Monterey County Water Resources Agency is examining ways to raise approximately $60 million to improve the region’s vital reclamation ditch, which is made of dirt and hasn’t been upgraded in decades. Their plan wouldn’t do much to Carr Lake itself, which is out of the agency’s jurisdiction, but would widen channels, modify some low bridges and increase the pumping capacities of some lakes.
To pay for all this, water resources’ Manuel Quezada says his agency is planning to charge developers 50 cents for every square foot of impermeable surface that they create. But that fee, if approved, would only be applicable on the county’s unincorporated land. That’s why Quezada says that his agency is working with the city of Salinas to have the same fee charged on city land, while having all the revenue go to the water resource’s coffers.
Carr Lake coordinator Hunter says he’d like to see the money pay for a long-awaited park at Carr Lake. “The [water resources agency] and us, we’re both going after the same pool of money,” says Hunter, adding that a park at Carr Lake would cost between $40 million and $60 million. “We’re both looking for developer impact fees to solve storm water runoff. And, you know, there’s just so much money that these developers can pay.”
Back at the mobile home park, Brugge again anticipates the next question before it’s been completely asked. “Oh yes,” she says as she stuffs the photographs of the flooded mobile home park back into the file. “We worry about the new developments.” And they wait for the rain.