Monterey Herald

Pajaro River flooding hits home, again


Well, we asked for rain.

Years of drought, though, may have dulled our response to “one of those years” when the rain seemingly never stops, the rivers and creeks rise and people are forced out of their homes or enduring massive cleanups.

At this writing, residents in the Pajaro area, which is in North Monterey County but really is linked closely with Watsonvill­e, have been forced out and were awaiting the next “atmospheri­c river” of heavy rain that is predicted to cause the Pajaro River levee to fail in spots.

The flooding not only has already brought a new level of misery to an area where many if not most of the residents are farmworker­s who not only have few resources to ride this river out, but also are losing work as strawberry fields and other farming areas are flooded.

It gets worse. Monterey County's Emergency Services shut down Highway 1 at the border of Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, where the highway crosses the Pajaro River between Riverside Drive (where Highway 129 begins) and Salinas Road, as Monterey County Sheriff Tina Nieto said that public safety personnel includiung the National Guard had already evacuated 2,000 people in the flood-danger zone and made more than 200 rescues.

The river was receding Monday, but projection­s Sunday had it cresting around 28 feet Wednesday morning after the latest storm. The river crested around 29 feet late Friday and early Saturday.

The highway remained closed at this writing and may stay that way until the levee is either repaired enough to contain the expected surge from the latest band of rain expected Monday night into today, or the flooding ends. As of early afternoon Monday, people who need to get from Santa Cruz County into Monterey County or vice versa are having to take lengthy detours along highways 129 (which goes through the city of Watsonvill­e) and 156 to reach 101.

Many people have sought shelter in evacuation centers, with reports the closest one is alrady at full capacity.

Monterey County emergency workers are also watching with worried eyes the Salinas River, which also was nearing flood stage in recent days.

The Pajaro River, unlike some of the other streams that flow into the ocean along the Central Coast, can take days to reach flood stage, as tributarie­s, including Corralitos and Salsipuede­s creeks, upstream flow into it.

For decades, officialdo­m struggled with the knowledge based on previous disastrous flooding in 1995 and other storm seasons that the levees needed to be rebuilt.The levees still in place offers the lowest level of protection in California.

Public employees have been trying since early January when previous storms brought the river to flood stage, to patch the breaches, but can't possibly stay ahead of any massive failure along the river, which seems to be what is occurring this week.

The project to increase flood protection along the river will be funded through the $400 million Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project, managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in partnershi­p with the state and the newly formed Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency.

But work won't begin before 2025.

The project will provide up to 100-year flood protection for thousands of properties in the Pajaro River area. But not today.

But last year, finally, through the efforts of legislator­s like state Sen. John Laird,who put together legislatio­n that provided state funding for the project. It was just last October when Laird along with Congressma­n Jimmy Panetta and other elected officials held an event to tout the levee repairs. This was after residents and ag operations located along the levee areas last June voted to asses themselves to pay for future maintenanc­e and other work of the levees so they meet federal standards. The assessment was a necessary step to unlock the full state and federal funding for the project. But again, the wheels of government work can turn slowly and the levee project is at least two years off.

Through all the local miseries (including a washout on Main Street in Soquel that is now been opened partially through the efforts of Santa Cruz County workers), water officials are worried about the massive snowpack snowpack in the Sierra Nevada that also threatens more severe flooding in the coming months as the snow melts.

High water everywhere.

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