Three tense years lie ahead as Watsonville residents await the Pajaro levee project’s fixes

Argos Circle in The Villages neighborhood isn't far from the Pajaro River and its tributary, Corralitos Creek.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Mark Strudley of the new Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency hasn’t been on the job for long and hasn’t even had time yet to build a staff or find an office in Watsonville. The longtime Boulder Creek resident lays out the race against time to build the levee project before the next devastating storms. There are many hurdles, including agency coordination.

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A Q&A with Mark Strudley

Unless someone can magically conjure up a gigantic protective ark and place it there in the muddy beds of the Pajaro River and its tributaries, there will be legitimate nerves among those residents who call certain South County neighborhoods home for at least three more years.

That’s what we learned from the climate change-induced, new-normal events of Dec. 31 and Jan. 9 — not to mention the seven others that came in between for Santa Cruz County and the Central Coast.

Those two extreme rain events in particular caused the banks of Pajaro Valley waterways to spill over into the zone where largely vulnerable communities — field workers, seniors, working-class folks — carve out their often humble existence in one of the least affordable real estate markets in the country.

The storms did tens of millions of dollars in damage in South County — perhaps miraculously with no loss of life.

Mark Strudley is the county’s longtime, undisputed flood control management guru — which is why he was given the reins of the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency (PRFMA) when it was formed last year. He holds a doctorate in philosophy of earth and ocean sciences from Duke University.

Strudley is the linchpin of long-overdue levee security that has finally gotten the green light. He does not, however, possess an ark or a magic wand — nor even a staff or an office just yet — that can bring instant solutions to an area that has desperately needed them for more than 40 years.

The federally funded $400 million project is not scheduled to break ground until 2025. The first phase, addressing the areas that flooded weeks ago, requires at least a year to complete, meaning it will be three more winters of worrying at best for those Pajaro residents living in a flood plain.

Strudley is not the person responsible for the emergency response efforts undertaken when atmospheric rivers line up en masse, making way for the occasional bomb cyclone to enter the fray. But he is the person most equipped to tell county and City of Watsonville officials how flow rates and elevations are likely to collide and advise them about risk levels.

He’s also more knowledgeable than most when it comes to weather projections, having spent part of his career working as a hydrologist for the National Weather Service. It comes in handy not just for his job trying to navigate, and fix, potential dangers along the Pajaro, but also because the longtime Boulder Creek resident lives in a disaster-prone area himself.

Lookout was able to pull Strudley briefly from his important work to learn more about it and try to understand the challenges of balancing long-term fixes with the present moment.

This interview is edited for clarity and brevity.

Lookout: It’s got to be tough trying to get your hands around this thing, but not being able to do it fast enough, right?

Mark Strudley: Yeah, I suppose you’re right. There’s lots of different time scales that play out with this. And there’s this slow time scale of long-term planning and adapting to climate change. And then there’s all these intermediate time scales associated with events like we had themselves.

Mark Strudley leads the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: How are we going to adequately safeguard ourselves from the types of events that caused flooding on Dec. 31 and Jan. 9 in the short term?

Strudley: The answer is not a good one — it’s about playing triage and the evacuation game if we hit these kinds of storm systems again. There isn’t a good engineering solution to this breakout issue on Corralitos Creek until you get to the long-term fixes. There just isn’t.

Lookout: With a brand-new agency, just four months old, those rain events must’ve felt a bit ill-timed.

Strudley: I was in a bit of an awkward position because we’re in this transitional period where the agency is still starting up. It really doesn’t have any staff except myself at this point. And we haven’t officially transferred all that authority and oversight over to the joint powers of authority from both counties (Santa Cruz and Monterey). So that made it a little bit awkward through these events, and probably required a little bit of extra coordination.

But we have these long-term plans to rebuild the levees, and the spot where it flooded at Corralitos Creek and went into Watsonville is the first priority for construction for that project. It was prioritized because we knew that this kind of thing could happen. And lo and behold, it did.

Lookout: Was there anything that could’ve been done to avert the New Year’s flooding that caught everyone off guard?

Strudley: No, the drainage crews we have out in the field actually walked Corralitos Creek before the event just as a routine kind of preseason measure. And there were no blockages. But the Dec. 31 storm did bring down a whole bunch of wood in Corralitos Creek and so there were actually at least four sizable woody debris bands in that region that flooded that were brought down by the storm system. They were promptly removed because we had continued forecasts for rain. So from that standpoint, we went into those storms in a pretty good position.

Mark Strudley near his home in Boulder Creek.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

But the flows we got were somewhere between 25- and 50-year occurrences. I think it was the second-highest flow on record for Corralitos Creek. Given our experience with that creek and how it handles really aggressive atmospheric rivers, it was a surprise that it ramped up that much. But there’s not much we could’ve done beforehand. It was not a great situation.

Lookout: That’s got to be a frustrating situation, caught in limbo.

Strudley: Yeah, it is frustrating. The only reassurance we have is that we made the right decision two years ago to prioritize this part of the project first, and I’m glad that our intuition and prioritization schema pointed us in that direction.

Lookout: I know you can’t break ground till 2025, but is some of the design work already happening?

Strudley: We’re already in the design phase with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. We’re in the process right now of reviewing 30% of the design plans they developed. So the wheels are turning and everything’s still on schedule for 2025.

Lookout: How long will that first phase take to get that area fortified? And what happens from there?

Strudley: It will take on construction season (typically the summer) to build that part between Green Valley [Road] and East Lake [Avenue]. The wrinkle to all of this is that we’ve got to keep the project moving downstream. We’re also working right now with Caltrans because we have to elevate those bridges on Highway 152 first and then on Highway 129. And that’s its own ball of wax. Dealing with a big agency like Caltrans is like dealing with a big agency like the Army Corps. It’s a Herculean coordination exercise, that’s for sure.

Lookout: So in the meantime, people who live in those flood zones won’t have any reassurance that this won’t happen again.

Strudley: They will need to take evacuation warnings more seriously, and kind of lend a bit of trust to what’s going on. It might not be a rosy situation for them. It’s always horrible to evacuate — I’ve had to do it myself many times. Not for floods, but for other things. For people not to take those warnings or orders seriously is an issue because they can get caught in the wrong place.

I can tell you that where I live in the woods, we learn you know when you have big storms to move our cars, because we’ve had huge redwood branches come crashing down on our cars. We don’t park our cars in the same spot when we have storms. It’s just little things like that that you do to take a little bit of responsibility and prepare yourself for these kinds of weather events.

Lookout: The lack of recent history of this type of flooding must play a part in people’s skepticism.

Strudley: In 1982, this exact same thing happened where Corralitos [Creek] broke out, and it flowed down Bridge Street through The Villages. So for people that have been there that long, they would recall it. But it didn’t happen in ‘95, and I think those floods are anchored in a lot of people’s minds. And Corralitos Creek didn’t flood the same way. So their response to that, and recollection of it, is not super helpful. Flooding doesn’t work the same way every time.

A photo from an Army Corps report 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)

Lookout: The New Year’s storm way overperformed expectations. You worked at the National Weather Service previously, so how do you view where we stand from a forecasting perspective?

Strudley: Our forecasting skills currently are better now than they were 30 years ago. But they’re imperfect. And that’s what we saw with a lot of the storm systems. That’s what we saw with Dec. 31, that the forecast going into that storm was not as serious as what actually happened. And then the forecast going into the next one right after that was overblown. The models are doing the best they can with more information than we’ve ever had before. But they’re wrong sometimes.

Lookout: Understandably there are a lot of upset Watsonville residents. What is the plan for community outreach?

Strudley: I anticipate that we’re probably going to be engaging in some community meetings about this. Those plans haven’t really been laid out yet, but it’s definitely something that’s on our minds as we get past the immediate recovery. We’re going to need to clear the air and make things more clear about what actually happened. There’s misinformation out there and emotions are running high. I like to present the objective facts, but it doesn’t make those responses and emotions any less real. So we need to talk to people about that. They need to know what worked and what didn’t. People want answers that make logical sense, ones they can accept and move on. We need to dispel the myths.

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