In the Public Interest: Local officials turn up heat on Newsom, Biden over relief, recovery in Pajaro

The flooded streets of Pajaro on March 11, the afternoon after the Pajaro River levee failed.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In this edition of In the Public Interest, Christopher Neely outlines some of the many challenges facing Pajaro after the catastrophic flooding that followed the failure of the Pajaro River levee and what elected officials from Santa Cruz and Monterey counties are doing to get heard in Sacramento and Washington.

This story was originally featured in this week’s In the Public Interest newsletter from Christopher Neely. Be first the first to hear about politics and policy news in Santa Cruz County — sign up for Christopher’s email newsletter here.

Relentless seems to me the only appropriate word for the year so far. Somehow, that once-in-a-generation confluence of rain, wind, flood and landslide that drew the president of the United States to our county only a couple months ago feels like a distant memory, shoved to the background as our attention shifts to the latest once-in-a-generation catastrophe.

However, the failure of the Pajaro River levee is a different kind of disaster. Talk to anyone who pays even minor attention to these things, and they will tell you that, unlike a run of nine atmospheric rivers, generations of farmers, farmworkers and local officials saw vividly this one coming from miles, and decades, away.

The people harmed by the levee’s failure are victims of government’s glacial pace and its tendency to kick problems down the road, especially when those problems are specific to low-income and vulnerable communities. Those shortcomings will continue to be examined and debated as the community recovers and assesses its damage. It’s no debate, however, that when public infrastructure fails so dramatically, the public sector, i.e. government, should relieve that harm.

Damage to homes and neighborhoods was contained to the Monterey County side of the Pajaro River, but farm flooding and crop destruction harmed an industry of workers who live and work in Santa Cruz County as well. Damage is still being assessed, and precise figures are still a ways out, but Dick Peixoto, owner of Lakeside Organic Gardens, told my colleague Max Chun last week that he doesn’t expect any farm to come out of the recent deluge unscathed.

Tom AmRhein, vice president of Salinas-based Naturipe Berry Growers Inc., has spent his entire life in Watsonville. He explains that berry harvesting begins around this time of year, as does vegetable planting. The storms have placed a hold on that by washing away crops and leaving fields under layers of water and silt. That means thousands of vulnerable farmworkers are enduring an unexpected and protracted furlough instead of the abundant work typical of the season. If only living expenses froze when the work does.

Darlene Tenes, with grassroots organization Farmworker Caravan, says the group has given out $35,000 in gift cards to displaced and unemployed farmworkers and plans to do another $20,000 worth next week. “[We were] the first agency to provide any monetary relief, which I was shocked to hear and not proud to say,” Tenes told me via email. “Public funds are always slow to reach victims, as we’ve seen time and time again,” because of strict guidelines and oversight.

Gov. Gavin Newsom touring flooded Pajaro with local officials
Gov. Gavin Newsom toured flooded Pajaro on March 15 with local officials, including Assembly Speaker-Designate Robert Rivas (left).
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Relief for these workers has evolved into a top priority, especially for the undocumented, who make up half of the farmworkers in California but are ineligible to receive disaster money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that affected farmworkers would receive a $600 check, but it turns out that was just good timing — the $600 is tied to pandemic relief, not the floods. Now, our local leaders have turned up the heat in pushing for relief related to the actual disaster.

On March 20, state Sens. John Laird and Anna Caballero and Assemblymembers Robert Rivas, Dawn Addis and Gail Pellerin pressed Newsom to greenlight at least an additional $1,500 in direct economic aid to displaced flood victims and unemployed farmworkers. They also asked Newsom to fund additional Farmworker Resource Centers to assist farmworkers with basic needs and emergency relief during disasters, as well as family resource centers to help prevent “vulnerable children from entering the child welfare system in the wake of these and future disasters.”

These requests accompany the big ask in the legislators’ letter: an emergency disaster declaration from President Joe Biden. As it did in January, such a declaration would open the deep purse of the federal government to help with recovery.

“I hope this letter and Gov. Newsom’s first-hand experience touring the storm damage … leads to an influx of resources to the region,” Rivas said in a statement sent via email.

County Supervisor Felipe Hernandez speaks during Gov. Gavin Newsom's tour of flooded Pajaro
Santa Cruz County Supervisor Felipe Hernandez speaks in Pajaro on March 15.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

District 4 Santa Cruz County Supervisor Felipe Hernandez, who represents much of South County, says that as growers await the shipments of hazmat suits required to begin clearing their fields of silt and debris, he is worried about the length of time growers will be out of production, and the farmworkers who have gone so long without work. He says the board of supervisors will similarly be sending a letter to the governor.

“We want to make sure we let the governor know that a lot of farmworkers need economic relief,” Hernandez said. “Even if displaced workers do find work, there is still this big gap with no income. We need to bridge that gap.”

Correction from last week’s newsletter

Last week, I wrote that Second Harvest Food Bank’s board chair Michele Bassi said Second Harvest voted to end its relationship with Food Not Bombs because of the group’s refusal to get local food handling permits. I got that wrong: Bassi actually cited concerns over its compliance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). Food Not Bombs’ local leader, Keith McHenry, offered more specifics. He said Food Not Bombs is technically not a nonprofit organization because it was late on its paperwork and its status as a nonprofit has yet to be formally renewed, something he partially blamed on an Internal Revenue Service backlog. The USDA’s TEFAP requires an organization like Food Not Bombs to maintain nonprofit status in order to receive food from Second Harvest Food Bank.

Of Note

Congress’s role: Whether President Joe Biden declares a major disaster following the Pajaro River levee’s rupture will be up to him, but the local process to secure that declaration is underway. Local officials are collecting initial damage estimates to send to the governor. Newsom will then have the power to request that declaration from Biden. Christian Unkenholz, spokesperson for Rep. Jimmy Panetta, tells me Newsom’s request will likely trigger an advocacy campaign from Congress’s California delegation.

A return, sort of: Pajaro residents were finally able to return home Thursday, though health and safety concerns loom over the return. Officials are still working to fix wastewater infrastructure. At a town hall meeting last Tuesday, Cal Fire said 903 homes had been damaged; however, only six residential structures, one of which was a four-unit multifamily building, were deemed unsafe to enter and received a red tag.

Cut down at the trees: Trees played yet another starring role in a failed effort to relitigate a referendum-supported development in front of the Santa Cruz City Council. First, it was the group seeking to change the downtown library mixed-use project on March 14. Last Monday, a group pressed the city council to consider an alternative to the Coastal Rail Trail project. This “interim” option, as they called it, would have temporarily ripped up rail tracks beginning from East Cliff Drive just over the San Lorenzo River to east of 17th Avenue in the area near Live Oak and replaced them with a trail. This would have been a departure from the original and eventually approved plan of keeping the tracks and building an adjacent 12-foot wide trail.

This issue of keeping the rail tracks for a future light rail and adjacent pedestrian/bike trail project was precisely the debate at the center of 2022’s Measure D, which proposed ripping up the long-abandoned rail tracks in favor of a greenway trail without rail project. More than 73% of county voters rejected the proposal. Yet, last Monday’s was undoubtedly a redux of the Coastal Rail Trail vs. greenway argument, as folks came out urging the city council to slow down the approvals and think about the 381 trees proposed to be removed. The city council refused to play ball, unanimously supporting the original project, with Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson absent.

In this installment of In the Public Interest, Lookout politics and policy correspondent Christopher Neely examines what...

Say It Again

“It’s hard not to feel like the system that is built to protect the most vulnerable completely failed.”

— District 2 Santa Cruz Supervisor Zach Friend, on the government’s failure to address long-known problems on the Pajaro River levee.

The Week Ahead

Santa Cruz City Councilmembers Renée Golder, Sonja Brunner and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson will ask Mayor Fred Keeley to sign a letter of support on Tuesday for what are being called two landmark pieces of legislation proposed in Sacramento that would overhaul the state’s mental and behavioral health system. Senate Bill 43 would widen who is eligible for a state-sponsored conservatorship to include those who, due to mental disorder or substance abuse, pose a substantial risk to their physical or mental health. There is no doubt that this bill would affect how communities deal with certain populations within the unhoused community. The other legislation would establish a live database for mental health facilities.

The Santa Cruz City Council will also meet behind closed doors on Tuesday to discuss a lawsuit and counter-lawsuit between the city and the regents of the University of California. As it goes with closed-session items, especially those dealing with litigation, little information is available on the content of the lawsuits.

It’s a long agenda at the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors as well, but largely filled with contract approvals and board and commission appointments. Squeezed into the agenda is a move to support an Assembly bill that would allow the California Coastal Commission to issue waivers for emergency repairs for private or public projects that cost less than $125,000, a fivefold increase over the current limit of $25,000. This could play an important role in the pace of recovery following the winter storms.

Housing Matters is leading what it’s calling the first March to End Homelessness on Saturday in downtown Santa Cruz. The event begins at 10 a.m. at the corner of Cathcart and Cedar streets.

Weekly News Diet

Local: Former Cabrillo College history professor Sandy Lydon walks Los Angeles Times reporter Susanne Rust through the history of racial tensions that led to the town of Pajaro becoming a vulnerable and largely forgotten community, or, as Lydon puts it, “Monterey County’s Siberia.”

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell.

Golden State: Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell blamed mismanagement of the bank, not regulatory oversight, for the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank. However, he said more needs to be done on the regulatory side to sniff out and address bank mismanagement. Officials from the Fed, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Treasury Department will testify in hearings set for both chambers of Congress this week. (Victoria Guida for Politico)

National: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, early front-runner to battle former President Donald Trump in 2024, has offered varying positions on U.S. foreign policy. His new book clears some of that up. His view, according to this report from the New York Times, is, in a nutshell, that America should refrain from becoming entangled in foreign disputes, a departure from some powerful corners of the Republican Party. (Maggie Haberman, Jonathan Swan and Kitty Bennett for the New York Times)

One Great Read

The Little-Known World of Caterpillars: An entomologist races to find them before they disappear” by Elizabeth Kolbert for The New Yorker

For David Wagner, an eccentric entomologist who “probably knows more about caterpillars in general than anyone on the planet” and once left a tenured professorship at Harvard to live in the Rocky Mountains, his vision of cataloging all the caterpillars of the western U.S. (a four-volume “page-turner” is his hope) is not Quixotic but critical to our scientific understanding of life.

Following Wagner through a West Texas bug-finding expedition and trips to the Natural History Museum, Elizabeth Kolbert (one of the preeminent voices working in environmental journalism today) paints a profile of a man on a mission against the clock of the climate crisis and insect apocalypse. Yet, the lasting image of Wagner for me is a tirelessly curious person whose devotion to the universe of Small Things makes him feel more at home on Earth.

Coincidentally, Kolbert will be coming to UC Santa Cruz in May for discussion with New York Times columnist and UCSC alumnus Ezra Klein.