State lawmakers urge continued prioritization of Pajaro River levee project – Monterey Herald

MONTEREY – Four California lawmakers recently advocated for sustained federal investment in the Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project in a letter to the Biden Administration.

U.S. Representatives Jimmy Panetta, CA-19, and Zoe Lofgren, CA-18, along with U.S. Senators Alex Padilla, D-CA, and Laphonza Butler, D-CA, urged the continued prioritization of the flood risk reduction project critical to protecting disadvantaged communities along California’s Central Coast.

The Pajaro River’s levees are about 12-miles long, were built in 1949 and have broken several times in the decades since, causing flooding and damage to communities and farmland.

The Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project is the $599 million effort to reduce flood risk from the lower Pajaro River and Corralitos and Salsipuedes creeks. It will provide 100-year flood protection to the city of Watsonville and the town of Pajaro, and a mix of 100-year and 25-year flood protection to the surrounding agricultural areas, according to the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the California Department of Water Resources will pay 100% of all project costs. However, the community is required to pay for ongoing operations and maintenance of the levee system.

The letter, sent by the lawmakers, was addressed to Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young and Assistant Secretary for Civil Works Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army Michael Connor.

The lawmakers previously secured $149 million through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for the project and have pushed for an acceleration of levee construction to address the urgent flood risks along the Pajaro River.

Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency Executive Director Mark Strudley said the current status of the Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project is that it is in the “in-between stage” of the design and construction phases.

In their letter, the lawmakers requested an additional $200 million from the United States Army Corps of Engineers Construction General account to provide for the utilization of design-build techniques to expedite protection for the disadvantaged communities in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, which are still recovering from extensive flooding in 2023.

Strudley said repairs that have currently been made to small 300- to 400-foot sections of the levee are stronger than when it was originally built in the 1940s, but there has yet to be any construction done on a new levee, instead repair work has been concentrated on three sections that failed during last years heaving winter rains.

“There has been a tremendous amount of preparation during this winter to fortify this levee but it’s still vulnerable and that’s why it’s so important to build the whole thing,” said Strudley.

The levees protecting the city of Watsonville, the town of Pajaro and surrounding agricultural areas are critically deficient, according to the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency. The levees only provide an eight-year level of flood protection, among the lowest of any federal flood control project in California. At a minimum, 100-year flood protection is required to provide adequate flood protection for these disadvantaged communities and comply with federal regulations.

Rebuilding the levees will take an effort consisting of both setbacks, making the waterway wider and making some sections taller, especially where structures cannot be moved.

Stradley said that work that was done in the last year was to shore up last year’s damage but was only a temporary fix. Those plugs were ripped out and the levee was rebuilt in those places. Two of the three sections have been completed but one area, under Highway 1, is not yet finished but close to its estimated completion date of April.

“The residents and businesses of Watsonville and Pajaro have been waiting for decades for urgent flood protection and during that time have suffered significant damage and loss of life due to flooding,” the lawmakers wrote. “We look forward to continuing to work with you to ensure this project continues to progress and provide the protection the people along the Pajaro River deserve.”

The Watsonville and Pajaro communities are over 80% Hispanic with per capita incomes that are well below the state and national averages. Many of these residents are employed as agricultural workers and are vital contributors to a $750 million annual industry in the area.

Planning for the levee’s 100-year flood protection project has been decades in the making with construction finally marked for a 2025 start date, but with California Assemblyman and Speaker Robert Rivas’ AB 876 signed into law last October, work on the new levee is to begin this year instead. AB876 fast-tracks the completion of work on the Pajaro River levee project by allowing for the exemption of various state and local environmental laws and regulations and effectively speeding up its completion date by an estimated five years.



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