Pajaro River levee system to undergo emergency repairs Wednesday after showing signs of seepage

East Lake Avenue in Watsonville, by Bridge Street on Monday, January 9, 2023
East Lake Avenue in Watsonville, near Bridge Street, was overwhelmed by flood waters rushing through fields. Shortly after this photo was taken at 9 a.m. Monday, the road was closed.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The County of Santa Cruz said late Tuesday that it would carry out emergency repairs to the Pajaro River levee system, which was showing signs of seepage after more than a week of heavy rains. The stretch of river that runs through Watsonville has continued to steadily rise since Monday and measured over 31 feet Tuesday afternoon (32 feet is considered flood stage) after more storms swept through Santa Cruz County.

The County of Santa Cruz said late Tuesday that it would carry out emergency repairs to the Pajaro River levee system, which was showing signs of seepage after more than a week of heavy rains.

County spokesperson Jason Hoppin said the repairs are set to start Wednesday on an earthen section of the levee in an agriculture area more than a mile upstream from the confluence of the Pajaro River and Salsipuedes Creek.

The work, known as a “seepage berm,” is a temporary fix to add support and structure to the levee system until planned a $400-million levee replacement starts construction, which is not expected until 2025.

The stretch of the Pajaro River that runs through Watsonville had continued to steadily rise since Monday and measured over 31 feet Tuesday afternoon (32 feet is considered flood stage). The San Lorenzo River, which filled and spilled on Monday, had receded considerably and sat well below its flood point.

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In Watsonville, Manuel Rodriguez stood astride his bicycle on the Pajaro River levee, gazing at the opaque brown water rushing by. He didn’t like what he saw.

“It’s at 31 now,” he said, gesturing to a river level marker under the bridge. “It could breach, today or tonight.”

Rodriguez lives just a couple of blocks away in the town of Pajaro. He was there, in fact, in 1995, when a ruinous flood from a breach in the river levee struck Pajaro.

In 1995, he said, the waters came in the middle of the night. Local firefighters helped him and his family escape. He settled at a sister’s house in the town of Las Lomas. Because he couldn’t get to his job site in downtown Watsonville, he was out of work for two weeks.

He was warned to evacuate, but he has decided to stay in his two-story home. “I can go upstairs and stay for a couple of days up there,” he says. “As long as we have the electrical.”

In 1995, his ground-level home was inundated with mud he said “was like Jello.”

Holding his hands about 2 feet apart, he said: “And we had worms, like this. It was incredible. But, man, we had some good fertilizer. Our gardens looked great that summer.”

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