.Levee Rebuild In Voters’ Hands

Property owners in levee’s floodplain must now approve an assessment for project to advance

People living in south Santa Cruz County and north Monterey County could soon see Pajaro River’s levee system rebuilt, a long-awaited project that would offer up to 100-year flood protection to the area, and be a comfort to residents who have been beset by periodic floods since the 1950s.

But whether the project can move forward is now in the hands of property owners living in the floodplain of the Pajaro River levee, who will soon decide on placing an assessment on their property tax bills, which is needed to pay $1.2 million in maintenance and operations costs.

The Pajaro River Flood Management Agency (PRFMA) on Wednesday unanimously approved a plan to bring the issue to voters, with ballots expected to be mailed out on April 22. They must be returned by June 8.

The assessment would mean adding an average of roughly $200 annually onto the property tax bills of residents living in single-family homes, a number that could increase or decrease based on several factors including proximity to the levee, property value and relative risk to the property in the event of a flood.

But rebuilding the levees could mean that residents will no longer be required to pay for flood insurance, Santa Cruz County Flood Control Program Manager Mark Strudley said. 

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Property owners who want to see how much they would pay can visit prfma.org/assessment, and click on “Calculate Your Assessment.” An Assessor’s Parcel Number is needed for this search. To find that, visit bit.ly/3xHledJ.

If it gets the nod from voters, the construction—overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—could begin by 2025.

The levee system has bedeviled the community since it was built in 1949. The river overran its banks and flooded in 1955, 1958 and 1995, which caused more than $95 million in damage to the city and to 3,300 acres of agricultural land and forced the evacuation of hundreds of families.

The Bench Excavation Project in 2012-13 provided temporary relief, removing accumulated debris from the levee and river and helping to increase water flow. 

“This has only been talked about for decades, but finally, significant federal and state dollars are coming in to help Watsonville and Pajaro,” said Monterey County Supervisor and PRFMA board member Luis Alejo. “Hundreds of families, including my own relatives, were devastated by the 1995 Pajaro Flood when the levee broke. We cannot let that happen again.”

Alejo added that the levee came close to breaching again on the Watsonville side in 2017.

“But the stars are now finally aligned to improve flood protection on both sides of the Pajaro River once and for all,” he said. 

The levee project recently received $67 million—the last of the funding it needed for construction costs—when it became one of four initiatives funded by President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. 

“This has been a huge turning point in the history of the project,” Strudley said. “Its significance cannot be understated.”

But receiving that money—along with other federal funding—requires the local community to fund ongoing maintenance costs.

Santa Cruz County Supervisor and PRFMA Chair Zach Friend said that the realization of the project is in sight.

“We are at the goal line but need the community to pull us over to complete this life and economic safety project,” he said. “The future of the Pajaro Valley is directly linked to the safety and security of the levee and we are on the cusp of rebuilding it and with the community’s support this can move toward construction.”

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