District 2 Supervisor Zach Friend speaks at a press conference convening the Pajaro River levee repairs.
District 2 Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend speaks at a news conference along the Pajaro River levee as repairs began following the winter floods.
(Christopher Neely / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Storms 2023: Road to Recovery

As Pajaro River levee repairs begin, questions remain around the long-sought replacement

Crews are working to repair the levee whose failure flooded the town of Pajaro in March, but the permitting requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act are among the obstacles that might delay the start of larger, systemwide repairs into 2025.

About a half-mile off San Juan Road, past the lettuce fields, excavators and tractors have begun moving earth to repair the exact spot along the 12-mile Pajaro River levee that failed on March 11, leading to catastrophic flooding and generational disaster.

Elected officials and community leaders from Santa Cruz and Monterey counties and representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stood against a noisy backdrop of construction Friday to update the community on where this urgent project stands. The emergency repair underway will focus on three sections of the levee. The first section, where the levee burst in March, will finish by Nov. 2, according to Holly Costa, emergency management chief for the corps. The other two sections will wrap up by the end of November, just ahead of the region’s wet winter season.

Mark Strudley, executive director of the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency, said officials are still trying to determine precisely what led to the levee’s failure, but that the repairs are a good preview of the kind of engineering that will go into the larger, systemwide replacement still in the planning stages.

“This levee, since it was built in the 1940s, was built to a far different engineering standards than what we would build a levee to now,” Strudley said during a news conference. “The replacement that’s going on behind us is going to be stronger than the levee on either side of it.”

The more substantial levee replacement has been about 60 years in the making. For decades, elected officials and community members have called out its vulnerabilities, but the federal government wouldn’t prioritize replacing the levee due to a formula that determined the property values around the levee were not high enough to justify a major flood-prevention project. After years of political maneuvering, the project received full funding in 2022, only months before the levee failed and washed out homes, millions of dollars’ worth of crops, and job prospects for the Pajaro farmworker community of about 3,000.

During the news conference, representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers said they were moving the start date for the larger levee replacement from 2025 to 2024, emblematic of the urgency around completing the project and reinforcing the town of Pajaro and its surrounding agricultural fields. However, that start date will depend heavily on whether the federal and state governments can clear the regulatory path for the project, as they did for the existing repair project. A major part of that is the thorny permitting requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

“Without relieving those administrative pressures like CEQA, I’m skeptical that we can get to the start of construction by 2024,” Strudley told Lookout. “It will also mean that our construction schedule is going to be 10 to 12 years. If we’re able to reduce those administrative burdens, we can get to construction by 2023 and it’s going to be more like a five- to 10-year project.”

Strudley called the effort to get a pass on certain federal and state environmental reviews and permitting a “hard process,” but said her is expecting an answer on regulatory waivers by the end of September.

“From the community’s perspective, they’re like, Why don’t you just rebuild this now?” Strudley said. “Because even under the most quick timeline, with all these complications, it pushes us to 2024. You just can’t physically start construction on a project this large and this complicated right now. You have to buy land, you have to move utilities, you have to complete environmental review and get permits — unless we’re given a pass on that.”

The other looming question is whether the section of the levee that burst will be part of the larger systemwide replacement. District 2 Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend, chair of the local flood management agency, said right now, it has been left out because of the low value of the properties around it. The Army Corps of Engineers has long scored projects as worthy of funding through a formula that weighs the cost of the project against the cost of damage and repairs. In this formula, low-income areas with low property values are not prioritized for funding.

Standing atop the earthen levee, only about a football field away from the active levee repair, Friend looked out over the lettuce and strawberry fields that abut the Pajaro River barrier.

“This section, I have advocated for since I started working on this project 11 years ago, and this area has no inherent value to the federal scoring system,” Friend said. “This is agricultural land with non-federally subsidized crops. There’s no homes. So, in order to get a fundable project, the first thing to do is find a project that’s fundable, and then you fight for the addition to the project once you’re in the system.

“And now, we have a pretty clear case. The question the federal government has to ask themselves is whether they want to pay for emergency repairs or do they want to fund [prevention]?”

A representative from Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s office said the senior member of Congress has requested tens of millions of dollars in earmarks to fund adding the broken section of the levee to larger replacement project; however, the Democrats find themselves in the minority in the House of Representatives, and Lofgren is worried her role in leading the Jan. 6 Committee hearings has put a target on her back for political retribution. That retribution could come in the form of voting against her earmarks.

Then there is the other variable in the mix: the coming winter. This one is notable because it’s an El Niño winter, which could bring heavier rains. The previous time the Pajaro River levee burst in 1995 was during a wet El Niño winter. Although El Niño increases the chances for rain, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee it, Strudley said. He said the prospect of heavy winter rains is keeping a foot on the gas pedal for the current repairs so they finish by November.

“We would need a huge, kind of regionally significant storm to get the whole [watershed] basin active [and increase the flood risk],” Strudley said. “You also need to, usually, be well within the winter, when the groundwater levels are higher, the soils are saturated and the watersheds are wetted up to recharge. So that’s usually the conditions that are required for a flood to happen.”

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