Local, state and federal officials gathered in Watsonville on Tuesday to commemorate an agreement that paves the way for the decades-overdue reconstruction of the Pajaro River Levee.
The legally binding agreement between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Pajaro Regional Flood Risk Management Agency describes the $599 million project and the cost-sharing and construction responsibilities of both parties.
Zach Friend, chair of the Pajaro Regional Flood Risk Management Agency, said the Tuesday signing marks something that hasn’t been “seen in generations: an opportunity to rebuild the levee for communities that deserve it.”
“We are today at a defining moment in the over 75-year history of this river levee,” he said. “We’ve been looking for some sense of hope to transition from fear of flooding for generations, and we’ve moved now into a situation where we moved toward construction of a new day.”
Known as the Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project, the work is expected to provide 100-year flood risk reduction to Watsonville, Pajaro, and surrounding agricultural areas by constructing levees and improvements along the lower Pajaro River and its tributaries.
Winter storms during the first three months of 2023 caused the levee to break in places, and overtop its banks in others. The town of Pajaro was flooded, as were surrounding agricultural fields. Thousands of people were evacuated.
That was the latest in decades of floods that have devastated the area since the levee was built in 1949, including during the 1990s, which killed multiple people and caused more than $100 million in damage.
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.
In October 2022, state, county and federal lawmakers celebrated the completion of funding for the levee rebuild following a series of legislative moves, including Senate Bill 489, authored by Sen. John Laird to authorize the Department of Water Resources to advance funds to the Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project.
Per the agreement, 65% of the project’s costs will be funded by the federal government, with the rest funded by the state.
Costs for ongoing levee operations and maintenance is a local responsibility, and in 2022, voters who own property near and along the levee approved a property tax assessment to help with that cost.
In October 2023, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas’ Assembly Bill 876, which fast-tracks the work by exempting the project from certain local environmental laws and regulations under the California Environmental Quality Act through construction. Officials say without the bill, construction would have started in 2025 at the earliest.
Now, construction is expected to start in the summer of 2024, Rivas said.
“We were able to shave off years of the construction of these levees,” he said. “Time matters. With each passing year, our escalating climate crisis raises the stakes for all of our communities along our state’s waterways.”
Rivas noted that while the signing was an important moment, he told the crowd of government officials and media gathered at the Watsonville Civic Plaza that “these repairs should’ve occurred decades ago.”
“It shouldn’t have taken this type of effort, it shouldn’t have taken this long to get this done,” he said. “We have to do better.”Work to repair the damaged portions in advance of the winter rains is already underway. Newsom also approved $20 million in state funds to help rebuild Pajaro.