The Pajaro River near Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Decades in making, Pajaro River levee project might finally right an environmental injustice, officials say

For more than half a century, the communities of Watsonville and Pajaro have lived in the shadow of a levee system that can’t protect them from devastating floods. Now, a proposed $400 million federal project to improve the system is finally taking crucial steps that could lead to righting that longstanding inequity, officials say.

Violet Lucas still remembers the trip to the motel when the water rose more than 60 years ago.

Lucas, 78, has lived near the Pajaro River and its creeks in Watsonville virtually all her life. In December 1955, only six years after federal engineers had built levees along the Pajaro River and Salsipuedes Creek, she had to evacuate for the first time.

“That was the big flood,” Lucas recalled. “And we had to get out then.”

The heavy rains just before Christmas brought hundreds out to sandbag the levee, old newspaper clips show. Lucas and her father stacked the furniture in the front room of their home. After driving her and her mother to a motel, the only one in town at the time, Lucas’ father returned to the property to stand watch.

Overflow from Corralitos Creek flooded 29 blocks in Watsonville with up to two feet of water. Hundreds had to evacuate and more than $1 million in damages were reported at the time, close to $10 million in today’s dollars. Lucas and her family were among the lucky whose homes didn’t flood.

Three more major floods — the most recent one in 1998 — would follow as the levees, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1949, overtopped or broke. Over the years, the torrents led to at least two deaths and racked up tens of millions of dollars in damages between Watsonville, Pajaro and the surrounding farmlands.

A much-needed overhaul of the levee system has languished in the planning phase for years, caught between starts and stops, in part the victim of a process that prioritized federal projects that would protect areas with higher property values.

But relief for the flood-battered region could now finally be within its grasp. A $400 million federal flood protection project to build a bigger, better levee system has enough funding in place now to enter into the design phase — a crucial step toward potentially making it a reality.

“The stars are all really aligned for this project in a way in which they have never ever been before by a long shot,” said Mark Strudley, the flood control division manager for the Santa Cruz County Department of Public Works, who has been involved with the effort for years. “And that’s tremendously exciting.”

The Pajaro River near Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

More than half a century in the making, the project’s significance to local communities and their economies hasn’t waned.

And for some the project’s story is one that transcends its regional impact and finally rights a longstanding injustice.

“It would be hard to come up with a greater example of funding inequity, especially for disadvantaged communities, than the Pajaro project across the country,” said Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend, who also chairs the county’s Flood Control and Water Conservation District, Zone 7.

Today, some 12,600 residents live in the floodplain, many of them considered low-income and economically disadvantaged. About 8,500 acres of crops — most of them high-value strawberry fields — span the area, subject to flooding that could ruin harvests and deal a blow to an agricultural industry that helps power the local economy.

A 2019 Army Corps report estimated $1.2 billion in damageable property dots the area.

“You have a project, a lifeline project,” said Friend, whose district includes parts of Watsonville. “The people’s lives rely on the stability of the levee, their incomes rely on the stability of the levee, and an entire historical way of life relies on the stability of the levee. And yet it’s a levee that has the lowest levels of flood protection of any federally funded project in the state and one of the lowest in the United States.”

A community ‘on edge’ any wet winter

The Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project, as it’s formally known, is getting support and investment from the Army Corps of Engineers. It has a powerful ally in Congress in U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel Valley, who helped secure funding for it and recently wrote a letter to President Biden advocating for the improvements. And local governments across two counties have banded together to help move it forward.

Much work remains and more funding needs to be secured to build it. But if all goes as planned, local officials say the project will finally give a sense of security to residents who have long had to worry about heavy rains threatening their fields, homes and lives.

“Any wet winter our community is on edge watching the river and the creek rise,” said Steve Palmisano, Watsonville’s director of public works and utilities, who has been working on the project for more than two decades.

Located within the lower Pajaro River watershed, the project area encompasses about 10,000 acres, including the stream channels, active floodplains and terraces along the Pajaro River and Salsipuedes and Corralitos creeks.

A map from a 2019 Army Corps report shows the proposed improvements to the levee system.
A map from a 2019 Army Corps report shows the proposed improvements to the levee system.
(Courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The design phase, which officials want to enter as soon as possible now that funds for it are available, will help iron out the details of the proposed plan, but in essence the project aims to reconstruct levees, which are earthen embankments, built to specific engineering specifications, that direct water away from communities and property.

In urban areas that will mean mostly rebuilding levees in place and making them larger, either by adding material or by placing floodwalls on top of rebuilt levees. In agricultural areas, the plan is mostly to tear down the old levees and build new “setback levees” landward, thereby broadening the path for the river and increasing its flood capacity.

“So there’s a wider area for the flood to flow through,” Strudley said.

The levees and floodwalls would be about 10 to 11 feet high, according to the 2019 Army Corps report.

Problems from the very start

The cost of a deficient system quickly has become evident as the string of major floods over the past six decades have resulted in millions of damages.

When the Corralitos Creek flooded in 1986, between the community of Freedom and Highway 152, local estimates were that “several million dollars” in flood damages occurred, the Corps report noted.

In 1995, a storm completely inundated Pajaro and the surrounding agricultural areas, causing more than $95 million in estimated damages — $67 million to the farm fields and $28 million to the urban area.

A photo shows flooding caused by a 1995 breach 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. The mouth of the Pajaro River is in the foreground.
(Via U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Floodwaters from a storm three years later, considered the flood of record, caused a major levee breach on the north bank of the Pajaro River, about 1,500 feet downstream of Highway 1. Costs for emergency repair work alone totaled close to $9 million, according to the Army Corps report.

The communities along the river and its tributaries remain at risk. Recent analyses, the Corps wrote in 2019, show that Pajaro and Watsonville have about a one in 15, and about a one in 12 chance, respectively, of flooding in any given year from the Pajaro River. Watsonville also has about a one in five chance of flooding any given year from the tributaries.

The problem with the initial levee system put in place boils down to two main issues, Strudley said.

One was that the existing stream-gauging record used to calculate water flow in the 1940s wasn’t very extensive at the time. There were also some miscalculations in what the carrying capacity of the river was with those levees in place, Strudley said.

“So it was overwhelmed by a flood flow that was far less than was expected to overwhelm it,” he said.

The second issue was that the engineering capabilities back in the 1940s were different from today’s — and that the levees were not built to the same standards as nowadays.

“So that compounded with the fact that the levees are now, you know, roughly 70 years old. They’re fragile,” Strudley said. “We’ve had several instances in which we have been very concerned about the levees failing. And this is no secret.”

Friend: Disadvantaged communities left behind by process

Though the need for an upgrade to the system was long known, the project struggled to gain traction for years. Indeed, it came “very close” to being nixed altogether not too long ago, said Tom Kendall, chief of planning for the Army Corps’ San Francisco District, who has been involved with the project dating back to the 1990s.

“In 2017, we were, as an agency, being told it’s time to kind of clean up the books and get rid of some of the projects that might not go anywhere,” he said.

The perception at the time was that federal and local officials weren’t getting “closure quick enough,” Kendall said, on some outstanding issues, including improvements county officials were pushing for that the Corps couldn’t economically justify.

“Essentially we were being told: stop the project,” he said.

But advocates for the project, including Panetta, were able to get the attention of Army Corps leaders in Washington, D.C., and soon a directive was issued to give the Pajaro project one more chance.

“We were given one year and $1 million to get to resolution and the county was very agreeable at that point and said, ‘Fine we’d rather have something than nothing,’” Kendall said. The resulting conclusion drawn then: The federal government needs to stay engaged on the project.

A graphic from an Army Corps report shows the extents of flooding in 1995 and 1998.
A graphic from an Army Corps report shows the extents of flooding in 1995 (dark blue) and 1998 (light blue) on the Pajaro River. The red lines indicate the reach boundaries for the river.
(Courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Part of the reason why the Pajaro project stalled for so many years has to do with the way 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.

“You could literally say, the most bang for the most federal buck,” Kendall said. “That was a simplistic way of doing the prioritization up till now.”

To local officials, the project’s protracted history is emblematic of a federal process that has long left struggling communities behind.

“This is a national story that the federal government, through its funding mechanisms for infrastructure, was fundamentally discriminating against low-income or disadvantaged communities across the United States for decades,” Friend said. “Unintentionally so because they’re looking at net benefits in such a narrow way.”

“This is a national story that the federal government, through its funding mechanisms for infrastructure, was fundamentally discriminating against low-income or disadvantaged communities across the United States for decades. Unintentionally so because they’re looking at net benefits in such a narrow way.”

— Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend

In the abstract, the prioritization process makes sense, Friend said. But in reality, areas like Watsonville and Pajaro — where property values are generally lower and agricultural lands are part of the mix — often struggled to get their projects moved ahead.

But there are signs of change in the way the prioritization could unfold going forward, with other factors being elevated in the decision-making process when determining if a project is viable.

“The argument that helped get us into design on this one was not that benefits are so far in excess of the costs, but that this was a good project that needed to happen, and that there are some, you know, disadvantaged communities that really will benefit,” Kendall said.

The evolving process could be promising news for other struggling communities, though it could also lead to the Corps’ backlog of projects growing further. “It’s potentially a zero-sum game in terms of the budget,” Kendall said.

‘Race is yet to be run’

Hurdles still remain for the Pajaro project, including eventually securing the funding to build it.

And while local officials are cautiously optimistic given the money allocated for the design so far, Panetta cautioned that the latest progress is only the beginning.

“We’re in a good position and we got the starting blocks down,” Panetta said. “But let me tell you, the race is yet to be run, and there’s a lot more funding, and a lot more work that needs to be done to get that funding for this project.”

For Panetta, the key to moving the project forward was both applying “constant” pressure on the appropriations process, the Corps and the federal Office of Management and Budget, but also developing partnerships with local, state and federal officials, including the Corps.

“A hell of a lot of pressure, a hell of a lot of work, and just kind of grinding away,” he said.

The Pajaro River near Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

It took hundreds of hours of meetings, conversations and trips over the years to advocate for the project in Washington, D.C., Sacramento and at the Corps’ district offices in San Francisco, Friend said.

“Persistence and consistency and appealing a lot on the emotional and moral side because there wasn’t a construct to appeal on the economic side that they were operating under,” he said.

‘It’s about time’

In January, the Flood Control and Water Conservation District, Zone 7, which is comprised of county supervisors and other local leaders, signed off on an agreement to help create the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency.

The new governing agency, which will include representatives from different governing bodies in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, will act as a local sponsor on the project and eventually oversee the long-term operation and maintenance of it.

The move marked yet another incremental step forward for the much-discussed project.

“We’ve been looking at this, well, my entire career on the board for 10 years and it’s been discussed for 30 years before I even got on the board,” Santa Cruz County Supervisor Greg Caput, whose district includes parts of Watsonville, said at the water conservation district’s January meeting. “So I’m just happy that we’re gonna do this.”

Officials hope to sign a design agreement with the Corps in either March or April, which would unlock the funds the Corps has committed to the so-called pre-construction, engineering and design phase. All in, the federal investment for that phase totals more than $4.6 million.

That phase optimistically could take between two and three years, Strudley said, and construction itself would likely take five to 10 years.

For Lucas, the longtime Watsonville resident who lived through the 1955 flood, the project can’t come soon enough. She’s now an advocate for the project as a non-voting member of the Zone 7 board.

“It’s about time,” she said. “It’s been a long time.”