Crews are racing to rebuild a riverbank next to Santa Paula Airport before the start of the rainy season, hoping to avoid the flooding that in February tore into the 75-year-old airport’s only landing strip.
Bulldozers are packing down sand to rebuild a 150-foot-deep chunk of the airstrip destroyed by floodwaters from the Santa Clara River.
The more crucial step of fortifying the bank with a rock slope remains to be done, said Rowena Mason, president of the 103-member airport association that owns the private airport.
“I’m hoping they can get that rock in before the rains come,” Mason said. “All it’s going to take is water, and we’re going to be right back where we were last winter.”
Ventura County officials overseeing the project said they understood the urgency. Grading is expected to be completed by the end of September, said Jeff Pratt, director of the county’s Watershed Protection District.
But the final phase, building the rock slope, cannot begin until the county receives regulatory permits from the state Department of Fish and Game, Pratt said.
The state is insisting that an environmental review be conducted before a permit is issued, a process that could delay the reconstruction, he said.
“If they don’t issue a streambed agreement, that could delay putting the rock down,” Pratt said. “And who knows when it’s going to start raining?”
Today, the Board of Supervisors will be asked to extend an emergency proclamation that would allow the county to approve contracts quickly, Pratt said.
The private airport is sometimes used by the sheriff’s and county fire departments, he said.
Work to restore the riverbank is expected to cost $4 million, Pratt said. The Natural Resources Conservation Service, a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has provided a grant to cover the expenses.
Once the riverbank is rebuilt, the Santa Paula Airport Assn. plans to spend about $400,000 to repave the runway and rebuild tie-downs for 36 small planes, Mason said.
Association members have already spent $250,000 on emergency repairs to the airport, she said. The private group has been approved for a $600,000 Small Business Assn. loan that it would pay back by assessing its members, Mason said.
On Monday, the Santa Clara riverbed adjacent to the airport was dry as bulldozers flattened layers of sand and dirt. That was in stark contrast to the muddy brown torrent that ripped into the airport six months ago.
Airport users were alarmed that the facility, which has been in operation since 1930, might be out of service. But the landing strip reopened to the public about a month ago, after the airport owners angled the landing strip inland and repainted the runway.
After falling off sharply, business is back to normal at the airport, Mason said, averaging 100 to 150 flights a day.
On Monday, pilot Max Rosenberg brought his Cessna in from Santa Barbara for a "$100 hamburger” at Logsdon’s, a popular airport cafe.
“Any time you take a plane out, it costs $100, and people like to get their $100 hamburger at Santa Paula Airport,” Rosenberg said.
The airport is a favorite of aviation junkies because it caters to antique aircraft and has the low-key feel of a small-town strip, Rosenberg said.
“Where else can you still walk out to a runway and watch planes go in and out?” he asked.
Built by local ranchers, the airport has had some famous visitors, including pilots Charles Lindbergh and Chuck Yeager and actor Steve McQueen.