Quick Take:

Federal, state and local officials signed off Monday on a $7.1 million deal that allows engineers to start designing improvements to deficient levees along the Pajaro River and Salsipuedes Creek, marking a major milestone for the $400 million project and plotting a path to keep the communities of Watsonville and Pajaro safe from future disasters and to begin righting a longstanding injustice.

For decades, the fear of the next big flood has haunted the communities of Watsonville and Pajaro, their neighborhoods at the mercy of a federal levee system that numerous times has failed to protect them from devastating torrents.

But with the stroke of a pen Monday, federal, state and local officials ensured that engineers can start designing long-needed improvements to the deficient levees along the Pajaro River and Salsipuedes Creek, marking a major milestone for the $400 million project and plotting a path to potentially one day keeping the communities safe from future disasters.

“This project was built in the ‘40s and it failed almost immediately afterward in the ‘50s, and for the last 70 years, these communities have been sitting under the shadow of fear of, at any moment, both life safety, as well as their economic security, could be at risk,” Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend told officials and media gathered at Atri Park in Watsonville.

The $7.1 million agreement — signed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in partnership with the California Department of Water Resources, the Santa Cruz County Flood Control and Water Conservation District-Zone No. 7, and the Monterey County Water Resources Agency — will cover the costs for pre-construction engineering and design for the first phase of the project.

That means federal engineers can draw up plans for the project — formally known as the Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project — to kick off a design phase that’s expected to last two to three years.

“We’re at a turning point for this project,” Lt. Col. John Cunningham, commanding officer of the Army Corps’ San Francisco District, told the gathering. “Now we’re fully funded for design, and we’ve got a lot of work to do over the next couple of years.”

Despite a clear need — with one of the lowest levels of flood protection of any federally funded project in the country — the undertaking had been stalled for decades. Part of the reason why is that the Army Corps, in a world of limited resources, has to be able to show that a federally funded project’s benefits to the area will outweigh its cost.

The mouth of the Pajaro River
A photo from an Army Corps report shows flooding caused by a 1995 breach of the Pajaro River. The orange circle encompasses the Town of Pajaro. Credit: Via U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

But to local officials, that had long meant that a struggling community was being left behind, falling victim to several major floods over the years that led to at least two deaths and racked up tens of millions of dollars in damages in Watsonville, Pajaro and the surrounding farmland. For them, Monday’s agreement marked yet another step toward righting a longstanding injustice.

“It just feels like we’ve turned the page from hopelessness to hope that you finally have the beginning of something that’s possible,” Friend, who also chairs the board of directors of Zone 7 of the county’s Flood Control and Water Conservation District, said after the ceremony. “And for so many years you were climbing up a hill and you had no idea what it looked like on the other side.”

For those who have long shepherded the project along, Monday offered a brief celebration, but also a reminder that much work remained, including securing funding to eventually build the project. Costs for both design and construction are to be shared, with the federal government paying for 65% and local and state agencies chipping in the rest.

“After decades of paralysis on this project, our partnership over the last few years has led to an amazing amount of progress on the Pajaro River project,” U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta said before reminding those gathered that “we have to continue to exert the same type of pressure and continue to build the same type of partnership.”

Rep. Jimmy Panetta shakes hands with Lt. Col. John Cunningham of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Monday in Watsonville.
U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta shakes hands with Lt. Col. John Cunningham of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during Monday’s ceremony in Watsonville. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

And although Monday’s signing meant another hopeful step forward for the project, state officials warned that while California is finding itself in a drought at the moment, floodwaters are sure to rise again, “with climate change coming ever more quickly.”

For some local officials, the question is whether a bigger, better levee system can come quickly enough.

“We’re 60 years behind the curve, storms are intensifying, need is intensifying, the economic impacts are astronomical, the life-safety impacts are astronomical,” Friend said. “What if we just don’t get there in time?”

Follow Patrick Riley on: Twitter. Patrick Riley is Lookout Santa Cruz’s county government accountability reporter. He comes to Lookout from Florida, where he covered Collier County government for the...