Albany Times Union

Officials knew levee could fail but took no action before floods

- Susanne Rust

WATSONVILL­E, Calif. — Officials have known for decades the Pajaro River levee that failed this weekend — flooding a migrant town and trapping scores of residents — was vulnerable. But repairs were never prioritize­d because they believed it did not make financial sense to protect the low-income area, interviews and records show.

“It was pretty much recognized by the early ’60s that the levees were probably not adequate for the water that that system gets,” Edwin Townsley, U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s Deputy District Engineer for Project Management for the San Francisco region, said Sunday.

“It’s a low-income area. It’s largely farmworker­s that live in the town of Pajaro,” Townsley said. “Therefore, you get basically Bay Area constructi­on costs but the value of property isn’t all that high.”

The levee was built in 1949 and, according to a 2021 Army Corps webpage summary of the system, “no longer provides the designed level of protection.”

Flooding has occurred five times since it was completed, including a breaching in 1995 in which two people drowned and economic damage was estimated between $50 million and $95 million. Flooding occurred again in 1997, and in 1998 President Bill Clinton issued a disaster declaratio­n. More recently, there was a nearfloodi­ng event in 2017 and again this past January.

But three years ago, “as part of the overall environmen­tal justice resetting of the federal government Corps of Engineers, OMB, Congress, all recognized that if you exclusivel­y looked at benefitcos­t ratios you wouldn’t fund projects in areas that were typically lowerincom­e,” Townsley said.

So the Corps’ study resulted in a report demonstrat­ing “there would be some value for life safety, even though the project benefit-cost ratio was pretty close to unity for the costs to equal the benefits,” he said.

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