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Oceano counts down to downpour

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San Luis Obispo County officials are moving forward with plans to clear drainage channels in Oceano, install an emergency pumping system to prevent flooding, and, if need be, manually breach the Arroyo Creek levee to flood farm lands in order to save other property and homes.

County officials have been scrambling for about a year to prevent more floods like those that submerged houses and displaced residents in Oceano in December 2010. What they’ve come up with is essentially a four-part approach to stave off flood waters in the event of future big rains: Clear creek channels of vegetation, install an emergency pumping system, clear a sandbar that prevents water from flowing to the ocean, and, in the worst case, breach the levee to divert flood waters into the least populated areas south of Highway 1.

On Dec. 6, county supervisors unanimously approved the Public Works plan and gave a team of county officials approval to breach the levee on the south side if it’s in danger of failing to the north. Supervisors also gave Public Works approval to continue pursuing emergency permits from various state and federal agencies. If approved, those permits would allow the county to clear vegetation from channels flowing out of the Meadow Creek Lagoon—most likely with an amphibious “marsh master” vehicle—and to install the emergency pumping system.

If approved, the vegetation-clearing operations are expected to cost $30,000 to $40,000, and the pumping system has a price tag of $310,000. On Oct. 25, county supervisors approved a budget of $785,000 for flood prevention efforts.

There’s a problem: No one knows for sure how well either measure will work. Though it’s expected the county can reduce the chance of flooding by clearing out reeds and other channel-clogging vegetation, officials can’t say with precision how it will reduce water levels. While the pumping system could be helpful, Public Works officials said it wouldn’t completely eliminate the risk of flooding in a heavy storm.

Still, given the bureaucratic obstacle course awaiting anyone who wants to tinker in aquatic habitats, it might be the best anyone can do for now.

“For this year, I think that everybody has responded as best as they possibly can,” said Public Works Director Paavo Ogren.

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