Quick Take:

With the El Niño weather pattern now in effect, Santa Cruz County officials are keeping a wary eye on forecasts that could mean more pressure on the Pajaro River levee and other infrastructure that took a beating last winter. The breach that flooded Pajaro in March should be fixed soon, but other repairs won’t even start until next year.

For those who think deeply about weather in Santa Cruz County, Oct. 15 marks a significant date, according to local officials. The month’s midpoint starts winter weather watch for the region, when flood managers and public works departments begin to earnestly keep an eye on weather patterns that could affect the county.

The county enters the 2023-24 storm season still recovering from last winter’s generational onslaught of rain, floods and wind. Much of the $140 million worth of roadway damage during those storms still need fixing, and multiple parts of the Pajaro River levee still need repair with a decades-overdue reconstruction still about a year out. All of this while the El Niño weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean increases the chance of, though doesn’t guarantee, another abnormally drenched winter.

Mark Strudley, the executive director of the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency, offered a bottom-line warning for the community, especially those along the Pajaro River, as he spoke Tuesday with the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors.

“People in general terms can hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” Strudley said. “But in specifics, people need to have their go-bags ready. … We are still living with a heightened level of risk until those new levees are built.”

By the end of November, Strudley said he expects the Army Corps of Engineers to complete the repairs to the three sections of the Pajaro River levee compromised by a storm surge in March that led to the displacement of more than 3,000 people living in and around the community of Pajaro in Monterey County. The new sections of the levee will be more resilient and built to today’s engineering standards, a significant upgrade over the rest of the levee, which was built in the 1940s. However, Strudley emphasized the vulnerability of the rest of the flood-protection structure.

“[These] are just small parts of this levee system. The rest of the levee system is the same old levee system we’ve had since the 1940s, which is undersized and structurally weak until we can build a new levee system,” Strudley said. “Until that time, we’re going to be taking every effort we can to bolster the system, to provide some extra level of effort, to try to keep this system contained and structurally sound.”

Although a specific start date is unknown, the timeline to replace most of the Pajaro River levee was abbreviated with a flick of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pen last week. Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, whose district encompasses Watsonville and other parts of South County, proposed a bill that would exempt the levee reconstruction from thorny and time-consuming environmental regulations ahead of construction. Newsom signed the bill on Friday, the Pajaro flood management agency expects to sign the construction contracts by Nov. 6, and the project is now expected to begin in 2024.

In August, Strudley told Lookout that without the ability to clear environmental hurdles at the state level, he was unsure the project could begin within the next two years, saying it was the difference between a 10- to 12-year project and a five- to 10-year project.

Elsewhere in the county, Strudley and the county’s assistant director of public works, Steve Wiesner, said crews spent the summer clearing logjams in creeks and flushing culverts from the Santa Cruz Mountains all the way down to South County. The county dredged Salsipuedes Creek to add some resilience, and Wiesner urged the community to reach out to the county’s public works department if they see any sediment accumulation, logjams or clogged culverts.

However, Strudley emphasized that the creeks are still not built to handle the amount of rain the region received last winter. Despite all the work, he said, county residents ought to remain vigilant.

“People need to be prepared to react and respond to messaging that comes out from emergency management partners,” Strudley said. “If there are evacuation orders or warnings that come out, they need to heed those.”

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Over the past decade, Christopher Neely has built a diverse journalism résumé, spanning from the East Coast to Texas and, most recently, California’s Central Coast.Chris reported from Capitol Hill...