Within the next two or three years, crews will begin work on rebuilding the Pajaro River Levee, giving up to 100-year flood protection to residents beset by years of devastating floods, and putting an end to a chapter in a South County story most would agree has gone on far too long.
On Thursday, as passersby walked and rode along the levee, a contingent of local, state and federal elected officials gathered in Atri Park to celebrate the now fully-funded $400 million project.
“We thought this day would never come, and for over 70 years two federally disadvantaged communities—communities that earn less than half the national average of income—have been stuck between two false choices,” Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend said.
The first, he said, is hoping for drought because of fears that heavy rains could overwhelm the levee and damage their communities.
But they also conversely hope for rain, Friend said, because most depend on the agriculture industry that dominates the area.
“Now, we can ask for normalcy in this community, because of the leadership of everyone that sits up here,” he said.
Friend was referring to efforts by several leaders to raise money for the project, including State Sen. John Laird, who authored Senate Bills 496 and 489 that provided the State of California’s portion of the $400 million pie. And, in March, President Joe Biden’s administration announced it had approved $67 million to help fund the long-awaited project. That funding was part of a $2.7 billion bipartisan infrastructure package to strengthen the nation’s ports and waterways.
The group of speakers included Sen. Alex Padilla, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, Assemblyman Robert Rivas and Congressman Jimmy Panetta.
“This is such a historic day here in the Pajaro Valley and my hometown of Watsonville,” said former Watsonville Mayor and Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo. “…we know that flood protection on this river has been talked about for decades, but it was never possible due to the cost that would have been placed on the backs of those who could least afford it.”
With just eight years of flood protection left, the Pajaro River Levee has a dubious history, overtopping its banks and allowing devastating floods in 1955, 1995 and 1997. Some 3,000 properties lie in the floodplain.
Efforts to rebuild the levee to offer 100-year flood protection for more than 3,000 properties have been ongoing for years, as residents weathered devastating floods in 1955, 1958, 1995 and 1998. Pajaro has suffered the brunt of many of these, with severely damaged properties and destroyed cropland.
Just five years ago, heavy storms nearly forced water over the top of the levee, a close call Alejo said cannot be allowed to repeat.
“That’s what this day is all about,” he said.
Laird said that as a county staffer during the 1995 flood he helped the hundreds of people affected by the flood.
Deflecting taking credit for his bills, he instead tipped his hat to the communities surrounding the levee, who in June approved a property tax levy that will fund the annual maintenance and operations costs.
“That was the teamwork you were seeing that brought us to this day,” Laird said. “And that is the reason we really have something to celebrate.”