Los Angeles Times


For years, low-income area in Monterey County — now flooded — wasn’t a priority for officials.

- By Susanne Rust

WATSONVILL­E, Calif. — Officials had known for decades that the Pajaro River levee that failed this weekend — flooding an entire migrant town and trapping scores of residents — was vulnerable but never prioritize­d repairs in part 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,” Stu Townsley, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ deputy district engineer for project management for the San Francisco region, told The Times on Sunday.

And despite having studied it on and off for years, in terms of “benefit-cost ratios,” it never penciled out, he said.

“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 event in 1995 in which two people drowned and economic damage was estimated to range between $50 million and $95 million. Flooding occurred again in 1997, and in 1998 President Clinton issued a disaster declaratio­n. More recently, there was a near-flooding event in 2017 and again this January,

when Pajaro residents were evacuated for one week.

But three years ago, “as part of the overall environmen­tal justice resetting of the federal government Corps of Engineers, [Office of Management and Budget], Congress, all recognized that if you exclusivel­y looked at benefit-cost ratios you wouldn’t fund projects in areas that were typically lower-income,” Townsley said.

So the corps initiated a study that 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.

And officials are currently designing a system they’re hoping to move into constructi­on in the next two years, he said, funded by the Infrastruc­ture Jobs Act and state money — secured by a 2021 bill that directed the Department of Water Resources to pay 100% of the state’s cost for reconstruc­tion of the Pajaro-Watsonvill­e levee system.

“It’s tragic that we got this just before we’re starting constructi­on,” Townsley said, referring to the breach and flooding.

The region is bracing for another round of rain beginning Monday, bringing more flood concerns as officials continue to assess damage from the weekend storm. More than 5,000 people in Monterey County remained under an evacuation order or warning Sunday, with more than 200 people sheltering at the Santa Cruz County Fairground­s and a Salinas church.

“Low-income neighborho­ods and communitie­s have always historical­ly been ignored by state and federal government­s,” Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo said.

“The story of Pajaro is exactly that. There was a lack of commitment by our federal and state government­s,” he said. “The residents have never felt they had that kind of support, knowing that the danger, the risk, has always been there.”

Farshid Vahedifard, a professor of civil and environmen­tal engineerin­g at Mississipp­i State University, said communitie­s living near levees are often underserve­d or economical­ly disadvanta­ged.

City, local and state government­s “have a historic, you know, a long track record of discrimina­tion when it comes to levees. They are a good example of infrastruc­ture equity issues that we have been dealing with for decades,” he said.

In a recent paper, Vahedifard noted that inland f loods had caused 624 fatalities in the U.S. and $164 billion in damage “that disproport­ionately affect disadvanta­ged communitie­s.”

Pajaro is in unincorpor­ated Monterey County. Although it’s across the river from Watsonvill­e and in a diferent county, the two communitie­s share a ZIP Code. Pajaro does not have its own post office.

According to Alfredo Torres, a Watsonvill­e resident who grew up in Pajaro, the smaller Monterey County town is considered the backwater of the area.

“It doesn’t have the urban amenities of Watsonvill­e,” he said, and because it’s in an unincorpor­ated area, public services — such as law enforcemen­t — are pretty minimal.

Watsonvill­e’s population is close to 53,000; Pajaro’s is roughly 3,000.

On Saturday, most of the Pajaro evacuees at the Santa Cruz County Fairground­s were primarily Spanish-speaking. Andres Garcia, a Pajaro resident, said many are migrant farmworker­s who work in the nearby strawberry farms.

Alejo said both communitie­s are economical­ly disadvanta­ged, which is why historical­ly so little effort was made to reinforce the levee. Per capita income in the two communitie­s is less than half the state and national average.

He said that also made it difficult for the cities to pay for the levee repairs.

Although the Army Corps had close to $150 million in federal funding, state and local communitie­s were required to foot 50% of the cost, of which up to 70% was the state’s responsibi­lity. The rest fell on local communitie­s.

“That was difficult, because that’s tens of millions of dollars that local, low-income families could never afford,” Alejo said.

In 2021, state Sen. John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) authored a bill requiring the state to completely fund the project. This past fall, Laird and others held a ceremony celebratin­g the funding of the levee project.

“I said some version of ‘I hope to God it doesn’t rain before this gets done,’” he said.

Laird has worked for years to get funding to repair the system. He said he was a county staffer in 1995 when the river flooded and spent several nights at the fairground­s “where many of the same families that are being evacuated this time.”

According to county officials, the state is trying to plug the breach — which has grown to 120 feet — with granite boulders.

A successful plug, however, comes with risks, Townsley said.

“This next wave [of weather] coming in is going to put additional pressure on the system and so you’re in this weird spot where the breach actually reduces pressure on the Watsonvill­e side,” he said.

“Once again, the lowestinco­me community is now bearing the brunt ...”

It’s not just an issue for Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. Scientific research shows global warming is intensifyi­ng the water cycle and is projected to unleash more extreme storms, worsening flood dangers.

California emergency officials said Sunday they were already coordinati­ng plans to position flood-fighting personnel, including swift water rescue teams, ahead of the next storm.

“We’re mapping where the next storm is going to hit and putting resources” — firefighte­rs, National Guard crews, high-water vehicles — “in areas where the storm is going to be most severe or where there are already rivers that are swollen, so that if something does happen, you can quickly get in and rescue people,” said Brian Ferguson, spokespers­on for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

A recent state flood protection plan for the Central Valley says catastroph­ic flooding would threaten millions of California­ns, putting many areas underwater and causing death and destructio­n on an unpreceden­ted scale. The damage could total as much as $1 trillion.

The plan calls for $25 billion to $30 billion in investment­s over the next 30 years in the Central Valley, with recommenda­tions that range from strengthen­ing levees to restoring natural floodplain­s along rivers.

The plan says state agencies are “working toward unifying an approach to understand­ing and addressing equity and social justice through flood management programs,” and “recognize that a Central Valley-focused investigat­ion into how inequity and injustices inf luence flood management is still needed.”

“The last time there was a flood through here was in ‘95, and there was talk then of doing things” to address the levee, said Glenn Church, a member of the Monterey County Board of Supervisor­s. He sighed. “Government moves sometimes kind of slow.

“It would have been great if all this could have been done sooner,” Church said. “But I’m just glad to see that there’s finally some permanent solutions being put in place for dealing with this, so we don’t have to deal with this every 10 or 20 years.”

‘It was pretty much recognized by the early ’60s that the levees were probably not adequate for the water that that system gets.’

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — Stu Townsley,

 ?? Photograph­s by Shmuel Thaler Santa Cruz Sentinel ?? A CALTRANS VEHICLE heads north through floodwater­s that closed State Highway 1 at the Santa Cruz County line on Sunday.
Photograph­s by Shmuel Thaler Santa Cruz Sentinel A CALTRANS VEHICLE heads north through floodwater­s that closed State Highway 1 at the Santa Cruz County line on Sunday.
 ?? ?? THE NORTH Monterey County town of Pajaro, just across the Pajaro River from Watsonvill­e, is submerged after the river levee failed. The levee was built in 1949.
THE NORTH Monterey County town of Pajaro, just across the Pajaro River from Watsonvill­e, is submerged after the river levee failed. The levee was built in 1949.

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