WATSONVILLE—In a mostly empty Jan. 19 meeting conducted over Zoom, the Watsonville City Council voted unanimously to join a collective of local government agencies to streamline the process of rebuilding and reenforcing the Pajaro River levee.
The union, called the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency (PRFMA), was tabbed by dozens of local leaders as a major step toward the completion of an important project that has been in the works for decades.
To the surprise of longtime City Councilman Lowell Hurst, there was no public comment about the project—which was presented to the council immediately after dozens of callers had spoken against a proposed propane facility.
“There probably will be a lot of comment when the bill comes in,” Hurst said.
The rebuild of the Pajaro levee is an estimated $400 million project. Most of that cash, about $358 million, is expected to come from the federal and state government—similar to a recently announced $2.8 million disbursement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The rest is expected to come from the pockets of property owners in the floodplain areas in Watsonville and Pajaro through a property tax assessment under Proposition 218.
Watsonville Public Works & Utilities Department Director Steve Palmisano at the January meeting said the PRFMA would soon begin circulating a survey to gauge people’s understanding of the project, and then develop an outreach and education plan to—the new union hopes—drum up support for a property tax assessment that is expected to go to voters sometime in the near future.
It is unclear how much the assessment will add to property owners’ annual tax bill, Santa Cruz County Director of Public Works Matt Machado said. But leaders from both Santa Cruz and Monterey counties have been in conversations with state officials about whittling that number down to as close to zero as possible, said Santa Cruz County Flood Control Program Manager Mark Strudley.
Having the state foot the entire $42 million bill that would fall on taxpayers in the Pajaro River’s floodplain—mostly seniors living on fixed income and many low-income residents in downtown Watsonville and Pajaro—is a realistic outcome, Strudley said.
“One of [the state’s] main goals is to provide flood protection for disadvantaged communities and Watsonville and the town of Pajaro are both economically disadvantaged communities,” Strudley said. “There’s a real strong case that we’re making, and they’re working with us on it.”
The PRFMA will be made up of members from Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, the city of Watsonville, the Zone 7 Flood Control District and Monterey County Water Resources Agency.
The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors on Jan. 26 unanimously approved a proposal for the county to join the PRFMA. The Monterey County Supervisors are also expected to join in the coming weeks.
With the aforementioned $2.8 million of federal funding, the project is now ready to move into the design phase, which Machado called a “critical milestone.”
“This is a major effort for the entire county,” Machado said.
While engineers work on the preconstruction, engineering and design phase, the PRFMA will prepare a draft environmental impact report, which is expected later this year, Machado said.
The group will be singularly focused on flood issues and on completing the project. It will also acquire, manage, control, maintain, improve and operate the levee infrastructure, as well as hire contractors and staff.
Machado says that forming the PRFMA streamlines that process by allowing state and federal agencies to deal with just one group.
“There are a lot of benefits to having a [joint powers authority] represent our project delivery,” Machado said.
Supervisor Bruce McPherson called the move—and the upcoming progression to the design phase—“a long time coming.”
“This is something that’s been needed since 1949,” he said.
Supervisor Zach Friend, who Strudley said has championed the project since first entering office, agreed.
“There has been more movement on this project in the past 12 months than there was in the past 60 years,” he said.
Attempts to upgrade the levee system date back decades. Built in 1949, the levee breached and caused flooding in 1955, 1958, 1995 and most recently in 1998, when Pajaro was severely damaged and acres of cropland were destroyed.
The March 1995 flood caused more than $95 million in damage to the city and to 3,300 acres of agricultural land and forced evacuation of hundreds of families.
The Pajaro River Flood Risk Reduction Project was authorized by the federal Flood Control Act of 1966, and local leaders have been working with the Army Corps since then to secure the authority for construction.
In 2019, Congressman Jimmy Panetta secured a final feasibility report for the project. That director’s report was the milestone that finally allowed the project to enter into the current phase, Panetta said.
The project will include rebuilding most of the levees from Highway 1 to Murphy’s Crossing and up Salsipuedes Creek.
That phase should be completed by the start of 2023, and construction, if funding is secured, could begin later that year.
Strudley said the completion of the project would be a game changer for the communities around the Pajaro River. Not only would it provide protection from flooding, but it would also reduce pricey flood insurance costs for many residents and completely eliminate them for others.
“That’s one of many primary goals that we have with this project,” Strudley said. “First and foremost, protect people. But, secondarily, and a very close second, is reduce the cost burden on them while simultaneously providing that level of protection.”
Editor’s note: Reporter Todd Guild also contributed to this report.