pajaro flooded agricultural field levee
Flooded farmlands in Pajaro have stalled agricultural production and area work. Photo: Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

PAJARO—Work crews have temporarily plugged a breach in the Pajaro River levee that allowed torrents of water to flood the tiny town of Pajaro and surrounding farmland on March 11, and officials in Monterey County are now banking on a law that allows the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) to perform work that will make the repairs permanent.

Under Public Law 84-99, which covers emergency assistance in response to flood and coastal storms, repairs normally take around two years. But Pajaro River Flood Management Agency Director Mark Strudley says the agency is asking for those repairs to be expedited to the upcoming summer.

But even then, he says, the geriatric levee system—which holds the Pajaro River back from the agriculture fields and neighborhoods in both Monterey and Santa Cruz counties—is rife with weakness that could very well mean more flooding in future years.

“There are plenty of vulnerabilities elsewhere,” he said. “That’s probably why the levee broke. They’re old, they’re undersized, they were poorly built to different engineering standards in the ‘40s. Things wear out. Things have a useful design life to them and they are well past that.”

Indeed, the levee—built in 1949—also flooded in 1955, 1958, 1995 and 1998. An upgrade authorized in 1966 by the Federal Flood Control Act never got off the ground, despite decades of discussions.

The levee is now due for a $400 million upgrade, with some optimistic estimates putting the start date within two years, and others saying it could be longer. 

The federal government has kicked in $149 million for the project. The state’s share—up to $181 million—comes from Senate Bill 496, authored by Sen. John Laird and Assemblyman Robert Rivas, provides the remainder. 

The last piece of this puzzle fell into place when roughly 3,000 property owners along the levee system last year approved an assessment on their annual property tax bills that will fund the $1.2 million annual maintenance and operations.

In a March 27 letter to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Assistant Secretary for Civil Works Michael Connor, Senators Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein joined with Congress members Jimmy Panetta and Zoe Lofgren in asking that the project—and its funding—be expedited.

But that’s not an easy task.

Before any work happens, officials must hack through a mountain of red-tape that includes environmental review and permitting, as well as land acquisitions and easements. The pre-work also includes moving power poles and elevating bridges, Strudley says. 

These requirements, he says, are part-and-parcel of any major construction project and move along their own timeline.

“We’ll try to make them go as quickly as we can, but there is nothing you could do to write them into state law or hardwire a faster process,” he says. “You just go how you go.”

Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend says he has seen interest at the state and federal level to expedite the environmental review and possibly move up the 2025 start date.

A promise unfulfilled 

The promise of 100-year flood protection is cold comfort for residents who live along the levee who have now endured five devastating floods. 

And it’s no accident that the majority of those impacted by the floods are low-income agricultural laborers, says Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo.

“Historically, what happened to Pajaro is a story that has happened to marginalized, poor communities, communities of color, throughout history,” he says.

Alejo points to San Lucas, a community of roughly 500 farmworkers along Highway 101, which has been grappling with water quality issues for years.

As a state Assemblyman, Alejo got the California State Water Resources Control Board to approve an $8 million pipeline that would have brought clean water from King City. But one year later the project was stopped after officials cited the high cost.

“For me, that is a more recent example of a disadvantaged community where the state, even after giving approval, backs out because they thought that costs were too high per household for disadvantaged farmworker communities,” he says.

The Board, he adds, recently began factoring racial equity into its decisions. 

“We are changing the way we do business and re-looking at communities that have historically never received the resources they deserve,” he says. “We are now trying to deliver them. That is our commitment to those communities.”

Friend agrees that economics have played a role in the sizable time span it has taken to move the levee upgrade forward.

“Pajaro is the tip of the iceberg in a federal system that unequivocally has discriminated against low-income communities in funding federal flood control projects,” he says.

But this story is not unique to Pajaro.

The problem, Friend says, is a 1:1 benefit-cost ratio used by ACOE when calculating the feasibility of a project, that calls for one dollar of savings for every dollar spent.

That means that a community with million-dollar homes will take precedence over one with lower property values, leaving low-income areas in the lurch. And agricultural communities fare even worse, since the ACOE places a zero on that land in the ratio. 

“So the most hurt are low-income, rural and ag communities,” Friend says. “Our story shouldn’t have happened. For years we have been yelling from the rooftops to anyone that would listen that the underlying system is broken, that the coldness of their economic calculations not only discount human suffering but ensure low-income communities can’t compete, and while there seemed to be agreement at many levels change has been painfully slow.”

Alejo, who began his career as an elected official on the Watsonville City Council before moving to the Assembly and then to the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, says one of his focuses has been securing funding for the levee upgrade.

That dream was realized in October, when a cadre of local, state and federal officials gathered at Atri Park—a tiny community space abutting the levee—to celebrate the full funding of the project. 

While that vote was the apex of two years of work by state and federal lawmakers, Alejo says it is now important to make sure the funds are in the bank, especially with an expected economic recession looming.

“In light of everything that has happened in Pajaro, we need to expedite this project to move along quicker, so we can actually  start doing groundbreaking and get the construction going on the levees to prevent another flood from happening in the future,” he says. “Considering it’s a project that is going to take numerous years, we don’t want our state and federal agencies to bail out and not fulfill their promises to the communities on both sides of the Pajaro River.”

Strudley says that if the money comes in all at once, it would allow for a design-build approach, meaning a single contractor could see the project to completion. That, he said, could accelerate the timeline. 

If it comes in piecemeal, it might stretch out the completion time, he says. Either way, the funding is assured, as is the overall project. 

“I don’t want people to lose faith in this project,” he says. “It’s heartbreaking what’s been going on with the flood, but everything is still on track with the overall levee construction project.”

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General assignment reporter, covering nearly every beat. I specialize in feature stories, but equally skilled in hard and spot news. Pajaronian/Good Times/Press Banner reporter honored by CSBA.


  1. No-one person or organization states the real problem. The 1947-48 decision to place levees in their current locations is the root of the problem. Whoever subdivide land prior and up to 1948 made very uninformed and poor decisions that are not sustainable. Less ag land means less aquifer pumping and depletion. The levees need to be moved back 600 feet outward from their current locations. The land owners need to give some land back to mother nature.

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