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Crippled Creek

[whitespace] Sue McElwaine Water Watcher: Sue McElwaine keeps an eye on the sky for signs she should move her 18 ponies to higher ground.

Christopher Gardner

South county residents living along Little Llagas Creek play Noah almost every year. Rampant runoff from development has worsened the problem, but so has a dam-obsessed politician from Auburn.

By Jim Rendon

WHEN SUE MCELWAINE looked out her window and saw that the rain had not eased up, she knew she had to act quickly. In her mud-covered hip boots, she pulled her four potbellied pigs from their pens next to the creek that had just spilled its banks. Then came the five goats, four show dogs and three yard dogs. The horses, she knew from past experience, would be fine huddled on the high spot in the pasture. Besides, they simply wouldn't fit in the back room of her house.

Every day McElwaine herded the 16 animals from their kennel crates in her back room into her pickup truck and headed for high ground to give them a walk. Three days later, the water finally receded and she could stop playing Noah. "I can laugh about it now," McElwaine says. "But then it was no laughing matter."

In the 14 years since that night's flood, McElwaine has learned to expect a lot of water on her four-acre Morgan Hill ranch. Most winters, her house, barn and fields are inundated. She gave up her quarter-horse breeding business here, eventually moving the stallions to Gilroy. She raised the animal pens so the pigs and goats can weather most rising water. She ships most of her 18 miniature horses and donkeys away for the winter. Everything in the barn is raised up on pallets or stored in waterproof barrels. But, she says, you never know how high is high enough.

Standing in her paddock, she points to a gawky yearling nuzzling the fence. "That one's called Causing a Riot," McElwaine says, "because he almost did." The yearling was born during last year's El Niño storms, when the yard and barn were knee deep in water. Only at the last minute did she find a friend with a dry barn that could shelter the expectant mare. "I was ready to foal her on my deck," she says. "What else was I going to do?"

Floods strike McElwaine and 15 of her neighbors in Morgan Hill with stunning regularity. Every time it rains more than a few inches in 24 hours, Little Llagas Creek, which runs through the middle of McElwaine's property, overflows its banks, spreading water up to a few feet deep into homes and garages and across roadways. Most residents can't bear to think of how much the damage has cost them over the years. The list of losses, the stories of water are endless.

In this little agricultural niche of Morgan Hill, accusatory fingers are pointing upstream to a nearby trailer park, the city of Morgan Hill, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, and even farther--to Sacramento and Washington, D.C., to a terrible idea called the Auburn Dam.

Crowding the Creek

LITTLE LLAGAS CREEK, a small waterway that wanders through the city, is sourced by runoff from the rapidly growing city of Morgan Hill. As it leaves the older sections of town, the creek straightens out, cutting south between the back of the strip malls on Monterey Road and the front of new developments that have popped up in the once-fertile fields. All of these new projects are required to catch their runoff in containment structures so that peak runoff can be released slowly over time. But many of these systems can be easily blocked and none of them are regularly inspected.

As the waterway approaches Watsonville Road, the creek bed spreads to a channel 8 feet deep and 25 feet across. Along the way, developers have fashioned a hodgepodge of flood-control measures that just worsen the problem. Cement banks channel the Llagas through the Mill Creek housing development.

Then, at Watsonville Road, it hits a wall. The channel simply ends when the development ends. In a strong rain, water from the channel flows to the wall and backs up. Overflowing its banks, the stream runs into the original creek bed and flows over and under Watsonville and Monterey roads, heading south and east through two farms.

On the east side of Monterey, the Maple Leaf RV park further constricts the creek's floodplain. Original plans for the RV park included an area left open for flooding so that water could percolate back into the ground, says Morgan Hill Councilwoman Cynthia Cook. But soon after setting up shop, the trailer park owners built a dirt barrier blocking water from the entire park, forcing water that once spread across empty fields into a narrow channel and focusing the flow toward McElwaine's home.

The city sued the park to have the makeshift levy removed, but the suit was thrown out because the state, not the city, has jurisdiction over RV parks.

"This frustrates the heck out of me," Cook says.

Though exacerbated by Morgan Hill's growth spurt, the problem is decades old, and remedies have been on the books since the 1950s. But in the last half a century nothing has been done to fix the problem. It has only gotten worse.

In the 1950s, flooding in this part of Morgan Hill plagued prune and walnut farmers so regularly that the Soil Conservation Service approached Congress for funding for a flood-control project. But the funding never made it, and the project lay dormant until the 1970s, when major flooding again became a problem. This time the project was begun, from the bottom end up, starting at the Pajaro River in Watsonville, but ran out of funds just north of Gilroy.

Two decades later, Morgan Hill is still trying to get the flood-control channel completed.

Damn Politics

TWO SUMMERS AGO Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren pulled up in front of McElwaine's house in her Ford Bronco. In response to McElwaine's request for help, the congresswoman decided to get involved, and the two women went for a drive. Following the creek, McElwaine pointed out trouble spots and told Lofgren about the flooding. After meeting with other neighbors, Lofgren went back to Washington determined to help fix the problem. But when she tried to get Congress to appropriate money for the project, she hit a wall as thick and as tall as the Hoover Dam.

It turned out that a project with about as much public support as the proposal to flood the Grand Canyon had in the 1960s was holding up Morgan Hill's waterway.

Against all reason, John Doolittle, a conservative congressman representing the Sierra foothills, has not given up his hopes for the Auburn Dam.

Never mind that the dam would destroy one of California's few wild waterways. Forget that it would sit directly on a fault. Forget that the dam has already been defeated twice in Washington and that Sacramento's own congressman is backing a less drastic alternative. Forget that the federal government is now starting to tear down many of the dams it once scattered across the nation. Forget all this--Doolittle wants the billion-dollar project in his district.

"It's the perfect example of a politician who has his nose in the public pork trough," says Warren Alford, conservation director for the Sierra Club chapter in Sacramento.

Doolittle, Alford explains, wooed the support of then Speaker Newt Gingrich, who, through parliamentary maneuvers, refused to allow any flood-control projects to be funded unless the Auburn Dam was approved. Morgan Hill's $81 million project, along with $2.7 billion in other projects, lay stagnant in Washington.

"What happened is unbelievable," says Lofgren, who still can't get over the impasse she faced. "No one wants the Auburn Dam. It makes no sense."

Though Doolittle now sits on the committee that funds flood-control projects, Alford and others are hopeful that with Gingrich gone, they can push through the flood-control bill that carries funding for smaller, more environmentally friendly, flood-control measures than the Auburn Dam, as well as Morgan Hill's project. But, Alford says, success is a long way from assured.

Even if funding is secured this year, it will be a decade before the project reaches far enough north to alleviate flooding in McElwaine's barn and yard. But other solutions are in the works, Morgan Hill officials say.

Channel Surfing

SURROUNDED BY antique guns, western saddles and mule harnesses in his rec room, Doug Galbraith talks about the flooding, about the 2-foot-tall berms he has built up around his property just across the street from McElwaine. Since he bought the property in 1968, the city has promised to fix the flooding, he says, but in the end, it has done nothing and the flooding has gotten worse.

"What do we pay money to the water district for?" he says. "We ought to be protected."

For three generations, his family has moved houses. Every building on his property was brought here from somewhere else. His expertise comes in handy. Nearly every winter he needs to jack up a corner of his house to replace part of the foundation that has been ruined by that year's flood.

Once, he says, someone from the city contacted him to see how much it would cost to simply raise all the homes in the flood area three feet off the ground. "More than it would have cost to just dig the damn channel," he says.

What Galbraith and other neighbors want is for the city to dig the rest of the channel, from Watsonville Road one mile south to the larger Llagas Creek.

Mike Di Marco, spokesman for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, says that his agency is working on the channel right now. In November the board allocated $1.7 million to buy the right of way for the channel, he says. But neither the city nor the water district has the money to actually do the digging. Instead, they will rely on developers to foot the bill.

As developers put housing on the empty fields that now lie between Watsonville Road and Llagas Creek, they will be required to dig out a section of channel--creative financing for a city that is not rolling in money, but a strategy that will once again take years, maybe more.

Another stopgap measure is also in the works. Morgan Hill plans to build a 15-acre detention pond north of the city to hold excess runoff until water levels in the creek are back to normal. Councilwoman Cynthia Cook says this measure is most likely to be completed first and should help McElwaine's situation.

Best of all, it is partially paid for. In August Lofgren managed to nail down $862,000 in federal funding for the pond.

While neighbors are encouraged by the pond and by Lofgren's efforts on their part, they have heard enough promises over the years to remain skeptical. Even if the detention ponds are completed soon, they will be north of the trouble spots. The bulk of the runoff, they say, comes from all the development between downtown Morgan Hill and Watsonville Road, and as the town continues to grow, the flooding increases.

Businesses and homes now cover the fields that once absorbed rainfall. With every rainfall, more water runs off more and more pavement and into the creek. That, Galbraith says, is the biggest problem.

Standing on the bridge between her barn and house, McElwaine looks down into the nearly empty creek. So far this year, she knows she's been lucky. Next year, who knows?

"There is nothing we can do but keep pushing," she keeps saying over and over, studying the water in the bottom of the ditch, hoping it stays there.

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From the March 11-17, 1999 issue of Metro.

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