‘There’s very little we can do.’ Watsonville residents eye fragile levee system with growing sense of alarm

Watsonville's lowest lying neighborhoods near the Pajaro River levee prepare for more rain.
Residents of Watsonville’s lowest lying neighborhoods near the Pajaro River levee can only hope and pray their preparations will see them through the next round of storms.

More heavy rain is set to hit the low-lying areas of Santa Cruz County this week. In Watsonville, memories are still fresh for many of the ruinous floods of 1995, which brought about two deaths and almost $100 million in damages, due to a breach in the aging system of levees on the river. More flooding followed in 1997 and 1998, and the levees almost failed again in 2017.

The city of Watsonville waited and worried on Sunday afternoon with rising alarm at the state of the Pajaro River and its tributaries, Salsipuedes and Corralitos creeks.

Last week’s storms did severe damage to coastal communities in Rio Del Mar and Aptos. But in Watsonville, the danger is not in surging ocean waves, but in rising river levels.

The Watsonville Buddhist Temple on Bridge Street is just across the street from the river levee. On Sunday, members were gathering outside the temple, discussing the events of last week when, on New Year’s Eve, water backed up flooding the parking lots surrounding the temple and caused some damage to cars and apartments nearby.

“This is the lowest spot in the neighborhood,” said Kenny Kusumoto as he walked the perimeter of the temple. As he turned the corner, he said, “This whole area was covered in water and mud.”

Dozens of volunteers showed up to clean up the area after the flooding, scraping and power-washing the parking areas around the temple, though one car that was flooded was still on the grounds with its doors open on Sunday afternoon.

Memories are still fresh for many in town of the ruinous floods of 1995, which brought about two deaths and almost $100 million in damages, due to a breach in the aging system of levees on the river. More flooding followed in 1997 and 1998, and the levees almost failed again in 2017.

The Salsipuedes Creek bridge at Highway 129 on Sunday, January 8, 2023.
Graffiti under the Salsipuedes Creek bridge at Highway 129 is half submerged under surging waters Sunday afternoon.

Up river along the levee, about a half mile or so from the Buddhist Temple, is Atri Park, a small community park tucked right along the levee. It was just more than two months ago, in mid-October, when this humble park was filled with VIPs, including Sen. Alex Padilla, Rep. Jimmy Panetta, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, Assemblyman Robert Rivas and others, all in a celebratory mood. They were there to mark the announcement that both state and federal funding had been secured to rebuild the beleaguered Pajaro River levee.

The levee was built in 1949, but it has repeatedly failed over the decades, and has been in desperate need of rebuilding for decades. In October, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill to give full funding, some $400 million, to a rebuilt levee that will provide 100 years of protection against flooding. Federal funding from infrastructure legislation kicked in about $67 million of that sum last year.

A new levee is, of course, great news for locals. But nothing about the upcoming Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project can help residents today. Construction on the new levee project isn’t expected to begin until possibly 2025.

In the meantime, as yet another potentially catastrophic storm threatens the aging and fragile levee system, Watsonville can only hope for the best.

“There’s very little we can do,” said Kusumoto, incoming president of the local Japanese-American Citizens League. “We really just have to react to the circumstances.”

Storm Central keeps you updated as we watch, wait and assess. Check back here as Lookout correspondents reach out across...

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