Public Works gears up for widespread repairs, sees West Cliff as hardest-hit part of Santa Cruz

Portions of West Cliff Drive were closed because of dangerous conditions and storm damage in early January.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz )

West Cliff Drive took the brunt of the damage within the City of Santa Cruz, which means that it will be the main focus of the beginning of storm recovery. However, there is plenty of work to be done around the city — and it could take quite some time to complete all the repairs.

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The City of Santa Cruz is assessing the damage caused by the unrelenting atmospheric rivers that soaked the area for the first two-plus weeks of 2023. According to Senior Civil Engineer Josh Spangrud, the city’s public works department cost estimate for storm damage is between $5 and $10 million.

That cost pertains to repairing the West Cliff stabilization project that seeks to replace cliff armoring — protective rocky material that has eroded along West Cliff — as well as the bike and pedestrian path. The West Cliff Drive culvert, San Lorenzo River levee, Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf and San Lorenzo River Lagoon Culvert Project are to undergo repairs as well.

Spangrud said West Cliff took the most damage of any location within city limits. As a result, it will take priority among the slew of necessary repairs. However, he said that the three main areas of damage on the scenic coastal road are places that had already sustained the loss of some of its coastal armoring. The areas with armoring still in good condition saw little damage.

“The fact that the damage is largely limited to those three areas shows how well that armoring actually does work,” he said. “Where the armoring was already failing is where the most severe damage occurred, and by not having that armoring, the erosion was able to eat through the path and into the road in a couple of spots.”

Repairing that armoring, though, will be costly. Spangrud said the city is going to need 8 to 10 tons of rock armoring to adequately fix the damage. Further, he said, the damage was to areas that haven’t been fortified since the 1990s — and the extreme cost of doing so has made it difficult for the city to keep up with maintenance. He added that he has a project in the works that budgets money to address this, but it’s not enough.

In Soquel Village, Andrew Gaul stacks sandbags for his tenants between storms Jan. 2.

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“The last time we put some big riprap [coastal armoring] out there, it actually got trucked from the Sierras. You can imagine if a truck can only carry one or two rocks, transport costs are astronomical,” said Spangrud.

He said that keeping things in top shape is always a challenge.

“Generally, once infrastructure gets built, maintenance is not as sexy as building a new project,” said Spangrud. “Just like how, nationwide, our bridges and airports are crumbling, we’ve been kind of lucky that the riprap has served for the last 30 years.”

Now, said Spangrud, the city needs to work hard on replacing the riprap, or move toward building a seawall along vulnerable portions of the road. But that will require even more money, including chasing grants from higher levels of government. Ideally, he said, the public works department could secure a large grant now and do all of the above. Realistically, though, it needs to focus on rebuilding what the storm destroyed.

“Regardless of what the future use of West Cliff is, what has washed away has to get replaced now, or we’ll lose the entire road,” he said.

With the extensive damage suffered in just a few weeks, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and President Joe Biden’s visit to Santa Cruz County to survey the aftermath, Spangrud said the city’s hope is that FEMA can help with getting projects off the ground.

“What FEMA said is if we need to do something right now in order to secure public safety, we should just do it and not worry about all of the bureaucratic niceties,” said Spangrud.

The stretch of West Cliff Drive where a portion of sidewalk collapsed in November
The stretch of West Cliff Drive where a portion of sidewalk collapsed in November.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Some emergency repairs were set to begin Monday, with the city placing 200 tons of boulders and fabric material to protect the exposed cliff near Woodrow Avenue. The road is limited to one-way westbound traffic between Columbia Street and Woodrow, closed between Woodrow and David Way and limited to local traffic, bikes and pedestrians only between David Way and Almar Avenue.

Otherwise, Spangrud hopes that the rest of the West Cliff repairs can begin in the next few months. Given that the final repair from the 2017-18 storms was just completed last fall, though, full recovery from the recent atmospheric river deluge is likely to be a lengthy process.

“We’ll probably have some of these projects at least in construction by summer, but some of them we may not get to for a little while,” Spangrud said.

How did the San Lorenzo River fare?


Spangrud said the San Lorenzo River levee held up well from the rainfall, but swells and tides caused some issues. As many as 12 locations along the river saw erosion, leading to the department placing about 150 tons of riprap rock on Jan. 12.

The San Lorenzo River Lagoon Culvert Project, which was “99% complete” before the storms according to a post on the City of Santa Cruz Public Works Facebook page, is likely to face a brief delay in completion as well.

“We’re at the mercy of Mother Nature now, so it will be when the river flows recede to a level where we can put equipment in the water,” said City of Santa Cruz Associate Engineer Ryan Haley.

The project, planned and executed over eight years, seeks to establish a water height-control system for the portion of the river where it empties into the ocean. It entails installing two long pipes that run from the trestle bridge to the rivermouth, with the purpose of mitigating summer flooding caused by sand accumulation, preventing lagoon breaches that can sweep beachgoers into dangerous waters and protecting wildlife by controlling the water’s salinity.

The mouth of the San Lorenzo River was packed with heavy machinery during the late summer and fall, but that...

While the work already completed didn’t go entirely unscathed during the storms, the damage was minor. A boulder fell on part of the structure, which will require some valve replacements. However, Haley said that isn’t expected to cost a lot, nor will it be a lengthy process.

Haley said that June is a good estimate for when the river flow might allow the city’s public works department to finish the project off, but that the storm might have actually helped speed up the timeline.

The final step of the project is to install what is called an “infiltration gallery.” Described as a large tuna can, the mechanism is designed to siphon excess saltwater from the river to protect the species within the body of water that are unfit to live in water that is too salty. The device has to be planted deep into the bottom of the river.

Earlier in the winter, the high sand level within the river caused the sand to collapse on itself as contractors dug into the ground, halting progress. Now, said Haley, he’s hoping that the significant water flow eroded some of that sand and naturally deepened the riverbed. If that is the case, contractors will have far less digging to do.

The San Lorenzo River flowing rapidly on Jan. 9.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

Even though that final component has to wait for a bit longer, the rest of the project, including the flood-control aspect, is completed and functional, said Haley.

Did that help keep the river from overflowing during January’s torrential downpours? Will it help storm flooding in the future? Not a chance, Haley said.

He said that the system is designed for typical summer water flows, which is between 10 and 20 cubic feet per second. One cubic foot of water is equivalent to about 7.4 gallons, and during the recent storms, Haley said the river peaked out at 15,000 cubic feet per second.

The culvert project is “literally a drop in the bucket” when it comes to managing storm flooding like we saw in recent weeks, said Haley.

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