WATSONVILLE—After decades of efforts by local, state and federal officials, plans to rebuild the Pajaro River Levee can now move forward after voters in Watsonville approved an assessment on their annual property tax bills that will pay for the maintenance and operations costs.
The Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency (PRFMA) announced Wednesday that 79 percent of the ballots were in favor of the benefit assessment.
While the issue of approving a new tax provoked a modicum of controversy in the neighborhoods covered by the assessment, it apparently did not inspire voters to weigh in. Of the 2,400 ballots that were mailed out, just 817 were returned, or about 34 percent.
Official results will be announced at the July 13 PRFMA Board meeting, at which time the Board will consider approving the assessment.
Efforts to rebuild the levee to offer 100-year flood protection for more than 3,000 properties have been ongoing for years, as residents weathered devastating floods in 1955, 1958, 1995 and 1998. Pajaro has suffered the brunt of many of these, with severely damaged properties and destroyed cropland.
“For 70 years, generations of residents in the Pajaro Valley waited for the day when strong flood protection would be a reality,” said PRFMA Board Chair and Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend. “With this vote and the monumental efforts to secure funding at the state and federal levels, we have reached that day.”
Despite the strong drive to repair the levees, funding for the $400 million project was always the stumbling block.
In March, President Joe Biden’s administration announced it had approved $67 million to help fund the long-awaited project. That funding was part of a $2.7 billion bipartisan infrastructure package to strengthen the nation’s ports and waterways.
While that was the final piece of the money needed for the rebuild, it did not include annual upkeep.
PRFMA earlier this year proposed the assessment to raise those funds, an estimated $1.2 million each year.
Board member Nancy Bilicich, who also serves as director for Watsonville/Aptos/Santa Cruz Adult Education, praised the community for supporting the assessment.
“Imagine, 10 years from now, a strong levee and no more flood insurance payments,” she said. “Property values will increase because residing by the creek or river will no longer be an issue. The Watsonville community should be commended for their foresight.”
Bilicich also thanked Congressman Jimmy Panetta and Sen. John Laird for helping to secure the funding.
Passage of the assessment allows PRFMA to sign state and federal project agreements for the project, which is now fully funded.
Once the project is completed, properties will be removed from the FEMA Special Flood Hazard Area, eliminating requirements for higher-cost flood insurance.
If the benefit assessment is implemented by the PRFMA Board on July 13, assessments will first appear on property tax bills this fall.
For information, visit prfma.org, email [email protected] or call PRFMA’s Assessment District Hotline at 204-3769 for English, or 204-3000 for Spanish.