ENCINITAS — Heavy rainfall and flash floods on Monday wrought havoc on a Leucadia neighborhood, once again transforming the Europa Street alleyway into a knee-deep stormwater river and damaging several homes and businesses.
Early morning rains pounded coastal North County, prompting several emergency advisories at approximately 8:21 a.m. on Jan. 22 in Encinitas, Carlsbad, Del Mar, Solana Beach and Oceanside.
The National Weather Service reported 3.1 inches of rainfall over the past four days in Encinitas, overwhelming the city’s drainage infrastructure and forcing road closures at several intersections along Vulcan Avenue and Orpheus Avenue.
A portion of South Coast Highway 101 closed for roughly an hour as crews worked to clear standing water from the roadway.
Public works crews used portable pumps to divert standing water from Leucadia Roadside Park and the adjacent Europa Street alley through an elevated pipe that empties onto Beacon’s Beach.
“During periods of intense storms, our storm drainage system becomes inundated,” said city spokesperson Lois Yum at 1:25 p.m. on Monday. “Water should start receding once we get a pause in the storm within the next hour.”
But the water kept coming, submerging cars, homes and businesses.
Mayor Tony Kranz urged residents in low-lying and flood-prone areas to take precautions and use city resources, such as free sandbags.
“I am aware of the impacts the most recent heavy rains have caused in parts of Leucadia,” Kranz told The Coast News. “The intensity of the storm overwhelmed the systems in place to deal with storm waters. City crews worked all day to mitigate the flooding; some properties flooded in Encinitas and around the county.
“Citizens are reminded to take necessary precautions whenever there is a rain event. Sandbags are available at the public works yard at Calle Magdalena. We will continue assisting with mitigating stormwater throughout the city.”
Since 2010, Leucadia resident Thaddeus Gardner has lived at 124 A Europa Street, which is located in a floodplain that often leaves homes uninhabitable following heavy rains. The property is one of two homes that are now the subject of a lawsuit by local homeowner James Gates over the city’s alleged failure to adequately respond to decades of flooding, causing significant property damage.
Gardner’s home recently underwent a three-month, $280,000 renovation after the downstairs flooded during a storm in January 2023.
“Last year, I woke up on New Year’s Day, and I stepped into two inches of water in my house,” Gardner said. “That was my New Year’s morning.”
At 10:30 a.m. on Monday, Gardner received a text from his neighbors: “Flooding 911.” Fearing the worst, Gardner said he immediately left San Diego and headed home, hoping to save his personal effects before rising water inundated his home.
By the time he arrived home at 10:30 a.m., however, it was too late.
“When I got here, I was beyond numb,” Gardner said. “We opened the door and it was bedlam. There was a foot of water in our living room and the entire downstairs.”
Empty garbage bins floated in a steady stream of water that flowed over a stack of the city’s complimentary sandbags near Gardner’s front door, filling his downstairs with at least 12 inches of water. Brand-new furniture, less than a year old, sat in a giant puddle that now covered the living room floor.
A painting from his native Spain leaned against the bookshelf on the floor, covered in water and irreparably damaged.
“It’s heartbreaking, man,” Gardner said. “It makes you wonder if you want to continue living in this location.”
‘Just a big mess’
The history of Leucadia’s flooding issues dates back nearly 40 years, when the city, upon incorporation in 1986, inherited the county’s original infrastructure along Coast Highway 101.
According to residents, engineers and former city officials, further developments and operations only compounded the issue, including an ill-conceived 24-inch nuisance drain, alleged mismanagement of a sluice-gate valve and pumping excess stormwater through an 8-inch elevated pipe over a bluff and onto Beacon’s Beach.
The Encinitas City Council has recently taken steps to address Leucadia’s drainage woes, awarding construction contracts for projects in the final phase of Leucadia Streetscape to bring upgrades to the city’s underlying stormwater infrastructure.
In January, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the city $4 million to install a new 60-inch pipe underneath the highway to help reduce the intensity and frequency of flooding in northern Leucadia. The grant only covers a portion of the work required underneath the 2.5-mile stretch of road.
The proposed drainage work also includes installing a series of reinforced concrete storm drain pipes underneath the highway for additional storage capacity; catch basins and curb inlets along the roadway and at Leucadia Roadside Park; and “green street” or biofiltration elements to help filter runoff and improve water quality, according to city documents.
“Segments of the drainage system will also be constructed under the roundabouts as part of the Streetscape project,” Yum said. “This will allow future segments of the N101 drainage project to connect to the segments of pipe under the roundabouts.”
However, the City Council opted to finish the aboveground Leucadia Streetscape work before installing the underground mainline, likely requiring crews to tear up freshly paved areas along Coast Highway 101 to set the new 60-inch pipe before repaving the road.
Gary Murphy, a longtime homeowner on West Leucadia Boulevard who for years has witnessed the devastating aftermath of heavy rains, said it’s time for city leadership to confront the problem of drainage and flooding in Leucadia.
“It’s just a big mess,” Murphy said. “I’m at the point where I’m not mad or upset anymore; the frustration and anger are gone. Now it’s just reality: What are we going to do? The council and city manager need to take responsibility and change things, or this is going to happen every time a storm rolls in.
“I’m heartbroken that this Leucadia Streetscape beauty project seems to be more important than residents’ homes and businesses. I think residents and business owners would be more inclined to spend that money on fixing drainage over Streetscape, but that’s the choice of the people.”
Councilmember Bruce Ehlers said the council has spent, borrowed or allocated roughly $57 million for the Leucadia Streetscape project while failing to adequately address the city’s decadeslong drainage woes.
“Clearly, this storm showed us that we need to spend more on infrastructure and, in particular, Leucadia drainage,” Ehlers said. “We have underinvested in stormwater for too many years. This year should be the year of investment in stormwater infrastructure, including moving forward on Leucadia’s drainage problems.
“When it comes to Streetscape, I feel we’ve put the cart before the horse. I support (Streetscape), but you do the underground (drainage) work first. You don’t put the icing on the cake and then change the filling. It’s common sense.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to include clarifications about drainage improvements as a part of Leucadia Streetscape. Additionally, a city spokesperson says the city has only spent, borrowed, or allocated $35.6 million on Streetscape, differing from Ehlers’ figure. The Coast News is working to clarify Ehlers’ comment and will immediately issue a correction if necessary.