Hopes rise over resumption of work to tame flood-prone Murrieta Creek

An eight-year gap in work to tame flood-prone Murrieta Creek may be nearing an end, federal and local officials said during a recent presentation.

The possible end of a funding drought could help Temecula, Murrieta and Camp Pendleton avoid a repeat of flash flooding that caused $93 million in damage nearly two decades ago.

“I feel very confident we’re going to see construction in 2013,” Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone said at the close of a recent half-hour presentation to the Temecula City Council. He described a stopgap funding plan as a “road map to success,” but he cautioned that many procedural steps and much inter-agency coordination will be needed.

Temecula council members welcomed the upbeat news. But they also expressed a wariness that has been fueled by numerous cycles of withheld federal funds.

“We’re going to hold your feet to the fire because we want the project to move forward,” Mayor Chuck Washington said as the presentation was winding down.

Other than that presentation and a meeting held about six months earlier, little has unfolded publicly around the project in recent years. That lull stands in sharp contrast to the dozens of meetings and public hearings that occurred following the January 1993 flooding that sent a four-foot wall of water through parts of Temecula, Murrieta and Camp Pendleton.

Those meetings netted federal funds for the first phase of a massive flood control project. But funding slowed to a trickle after the initial work was done. That interruption has left local agencies scrambling over how to proceed.

County and federal officials have come up with a conceptual funding plan they believe will allow the project to move forward. But they also note that the funding gap has widened and the estimated cost to complete the work has climbed from $91 million to about $117 million.

The plan, which would require approval from county supervisors and other officials, calls for $12 million or more in local funds to initially be spent to jump-start the second phase. Doing so would allow work to proceed while efforts to attract federal funds are intensified, Stone and other officials said.

“We have a plan that theoretically is the best of both worlds,” said Warren “Dusty” Williams, general manager and chief engineer of the Riverside County Flood Control and Water Conservation District. “The desire of the community is to move forward now.”

The completion of the first phase of the flood control project about eight years ago has provided some breathing room. But many Old Town Temecula merchants and residents retain vivid images of the past flooding and they continue to worry about the potential future risks.

Old Town’s core, where much of the damage occurred, would benefit most from the second phase of the work. Flood control officials have described Old Town as a “pinch point” because Murrieta Creek narrows as it passes through the historic business district.

Murrieta Creek, a main tributary of the Santa Margarita River, has crested above its banks numerous times over the past 150 years. But the rapid growth that fueled the formation of two cities – Temecula in December 1989 and Murrieta in July 1991 – also increased the risk of potential damage from heavy runoff.

The 1993 flood was the first major natural disaster to strike the pair of fledgling municipalities. It strained their emergency responses and budget reserves.

Firefighters and police officers had to rescue 500 people from Old Town Temecula. At least 500 Murrieta residents were unable to reach their homes and businesses until the flood waters subsided three hours later, according to media reports at the time.

The magnitude of that storm, which swept through the area at night, is statistically likely to occur once every 25 years, flood control officials said. The area was vulnerable to flooding that year because a series of earlier storms had softened the soil and created sponge-like runoff conditions.

Temecula and Murrieta together suffered about $12 million in damage. A helicopter landing field and several of its aircraft were swept away on Camp Pendleton. Damage to the sprawling Marine base, which is bisected by the pristine river, totaled about $88 million.

After intensive lobbying, the Murrieta Creek project won federal approval in late 2000. The plan called for the federal Army Corps of Engineers to oversee work to create a wider, deeper channel in sections of a 14-mile corridor of the creek that transports rains from a 744-square-mile drainage area.

An agreement adopted at that time called for the federal government to shoulder about $59 million of the cost and the cities, the county and the regional flood control district to come with the $32 million difference.

By 2003, enough federal funding had accrued to begin work on the first phase of the flood control project. That segment stretches from the confluence of the Murrieta and Temecula creeks to First Street, where a $4 million bridge had previously been built.

Some of the excavation work that was done during the first phase of the project was washed away when another large storm occurred in October 2004. That storm also scoured much of the vegetation that had been planted as a way to reduce future erosion. Much of that work had to be repaired over the next few years.

The widened channel allows water to drain faster as it flows downstream and through a narrow gorge at the confluence of the river that forms at Temecula’s southeast corner and flows 27 miles to the ocean.

But state and federal budget woes and a wave of natural disasters in New Orleans and elsewhere in the country pushed other flood control projects ahead of Murrieta Creek. As a result, Murrieta Creek ranked lower in a cost-versus-benefits ratio that is examined by federal agencies when funding is considered.

It is hoped that removing the upper or fourth phase of the Murrieta Creek plan will increase its competitive edge over other flood control projects when future funding cycles unfold.

The second phase of the Murrieta Creek project would bring improvements to the area from

First Street in Old Town to Rancho California Road. Some excavation work would be done beneath the bridge that spans the creek at Rancho California Road. The bridge blocked part of the surge that occurred in 1993. That blockage caused flood waters to swirl around the concrete structure and funnel through Old Town.

The third phase of the project would largely focus on creating an overflow basin near the confluence of Murrieta and Santa Gertrudis creeks. Portions of that site could become a sports park and possibly a transit center. Those regional facilities would be shared by Temecula and Murrieta.

David M. Van Dorpe, a deputy district engineer for the Army Corps, acknowledged that it has been “very, very difficult” to win federal funds for the remaining phases of the Murrieta Creek work. He said the use of local “accelerated funds” could help spur a renewed federal interest in the project.

But he also cautioned that numerous procedural steps – as well as the allocation of $500,000 to finish designing phase two of the improvements – will need to be taken soon in order for work to begin late next year.

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