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July 21, 2024

Pajaro levee project begins long-awaited design phase

WATSONVILLE—Federal, state and local officials gathered at Atri Park in Watsonville Monday at a public ceremony to sign a design agreement for the Pajaro River Flood Management Project. 

The long-awaited $400 million effort is designed to reduce flood risk for the “disadvantaged” communities of Pajaro and Watsonville that have multiple times faced devastating floods, Santa Cruz County officials said in a press release.

“Today’s action marks monumental progress in our efforts to reduce flood risk, protect vulnerable populations, and provide a more secure economic future for these communities,” Congressman Jimmy Panetta, who is credited with helping to secure federal funding and support for the project, said in a press release. “While this is our latest step forward, it is far from our last as we continue to forge ahead to ensure this project is completed and our communities are safe.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the California Department of Water Resources, the Santa Cruz County Flood Control and Water Conservation District (Zone 7) and the Monterey County Water Resources Agency signed the $7.1 million agreement, which also includes work on a section of Salsipuedes Creek. They will share the project’s costs for pre-construction engineering and design for the initial phase of the project. The federal government will cover 65% while local and state agencies will handle 35% of the design and construction costs.  

“Executing this design agreement underscores our commitment to developing a robust design to protect people and property along the Pajaro River, a critical step as we push this project forward with our state and local partners,” said Lt. Col. John Cunningham, Commanding Officer of the USACE’s San Francisco District, who added that construction could begin in 2024.

The original federal levee system for the Pajaro River was completed in 1949, but had twice failed by 1958, officials said. Although a fix was initially authorized in the Federal Flood Control Act of 1966, it was followed by decades of unsuccessful efforts that included the study of dozens of potential project alternatives.

The situation became more urgent in recent history, with flooding occurring in 1995, 1997 and 1998. The 1995 flood caused more than $95 million in damages and killed two people. Levees nearly broke again in the federally declared storm disasters in early  2017.

“For 60 years it felt like we were really not able to provide any hope to the communities, both the town of Pajaro and the city of Watsonville, and today really marks a new chapter and new era of hope,” said Zach Friend, Santa Cruz County Second District Supervisor and Chair of the Zone 7 Board of Directors. “It took a remarkable amount of work. This is a major step toward ensuring equity for disadvantaged communities that have been neglected for too long. We have a unique opportunity, in partnership with our state and federal partners, to protect the most vulnerable communities in our region by seeing this project through.”

Next in line will be the formation of the Pajaro River Flood Management Agency—a joint powers authority charged with financing and cost-sharing, and supporting legislative efforts being led by state Senator John Laird to increase state funding for projects that benefit disadvantaged communities, officials said.

Mark Strudley, the county’s Flood Control Program manager in Zone 7, said the project will completely overhaul the levee.

“This isn’t just cleaning the levee and taking care of it—it means building a new one,” he said.

Tarmo Hannula
Tarmo Hannula
Tarmo Hannula has been the lead photographer with The Pajaronian newspaper in Watsonville since 1997. More recently Good Times & Press Banner. He also reports on a wide range of topics, including police, fire, environment, schools, the arts and events. A fifth generation Californian, Tarmo was born in the Mother Lode of the Sierra (Columbia) and has lived in Santa Cruz County since the late 1970s. He earned a BA from UC Santa Cruz and has traveled to 33 countries.


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