Padilla, Panetta promise to ‘pressure’ pace of Pajaro levee project

California Sen. Alex Padilla speaks at a news conference near the Pajaro River in Watsonville.
(Via Alison Gamel)

U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla and Rep. Jimmy Panetta visited the banks of the Pajaro River on Wednesday in an effort to get the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers moving faster on not only repairs to the levee whose failure flooded the town of Pajaro in March but also the long-promised levee overhaul. The Corps is aiming to finish emergency repairs by the fall, and to break ground on a long-promised $400 million upgrade by summer 2024.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

In front of strawberry fields running parallel to the Pajaro River, Rep. Jimmy Panetta, flanked by U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla and officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, used the word “pressure” 19 times in under five minutes Wednesday as he told a gaggle of reporters that the federal government was doing everything possible to prevent a repeat of the March 11 levee breach that washed out the town of Pajaro and destroyed agriculture fields.

The disaster has placed pressure on the community and its production, Panetta said, but elected officials at all levels of government are putting maximum pressure on the federal government to quickly make repairs and begin construction on the larger levee project.

“We know more needs to be done, but we are here today, the senator is here today, to tell you that we are going to start this project so that we can protect the produce and the people of the Pajaro Valley,” Panetta said.

But what does pressure mean? Mark Strudley, executive director of the Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project, pointed to four specific requests the officials would be making of the federal government: fast-track repairs to the levee through hastened permitting and regulatory approvals so the project could finish in the summer; unleash all state and federal funding so the levee construction can begin as soon as possible; eliminate permitting and regulatory holdups so the larger project can start soon; and finally, provide more funding where needed to expand flood-risk initiatives beyond just the levee project.

Emergency repairs after a disaster such as the levee breach are known to take two years to clear permitting and get completed. The larger, $400 million Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project to modernize the levee secured funding commitments from the federal and state governments just within the past two years. Before the levee breach in March, the most optimistic estimates had the levee project breaking ground by the close of 2025.

Tommy Williams, deputy program manager at the Army Corps of Engineers, said the goal now is to get the emergency levee repairs completed by the time the rain returns this fall, and to begin construction on the larger levee replacement by summer 2024.

Panetta, knowing how the federal government operates, was more hesitant to commit to a timeline, saying only that the community needed the project to begin already. He says having actual eyes on the damage, with Padilla in the area this week and a visit by Army Corps of Engineers Assistant Secretary Michael Connor on April 6, helps keep the issue on the front burner.

“We’re laying the foundation so we can get this project started,” Panetta said. “The fact we have all these people here helps put pressure on the administration and helps the Army Corps of Engineers make this a priority to get shovels in the ground.”


Be the first to know all the big, breaking news in Santa Cruz. Sign up to get Lookout alerts sent straight to your phone here or below.