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October 24, 2021

Pajaro River Levee project moves to design phase

WATSONVILLE—After years of waiting, advocating, fighting and fretting, people who live near the Pajaro River – and in the community around it – can breathe a sigh of relief.

That’s after a feasibility report released Thursday by the Army Corps of Engineers, and a separate one confirming it by Corps Director of Civil Works James Dalton, has helped move forward long-awaited repairs and upgrades of the Pajaro River Levee.

The report was released Friday during the 2019 conference of the Pajaro River Watershed Flood Prevention Authority (PRWFPA), a multi-jurisdictional group made up of water managers and elected officials from the tri-county area.

Also in attendance were representatives from the office of Senator Kamala Harris and Assemblywoman Ana Caballero.

Congressman Jimmy Panetta (D-Carmel) said the project has been a priority for his office since he was elected.

“It demonstrates what I believe what this community is about,” said Panetta, who is up for reelection. “The willingness to come together on a project that I believe is so very, very important, yet has taken a very, very long time.”

Local authorities have advocated for the levee for decades, hoping to shore up the aging structure and help keep water from breaching it during heavy rains.

Attempts to upgrade the system date back decades. Built in 1949, the levee breached and caused flooding in 1955, 1958, 1995 and 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 Bench Excavation Project in 2012-13 removed accumulated debris from the levee and river and helped to increase water flow. But that was meant as a temporary measure. To complete the major upgrades needed required help from the Army Corps. 

Although construction is still years in the future – with the design phase to take an estimated two years and construction about five – the move to the design stage for the $400 million project is a critical step for the community, said Santa Cruz County Flood Control Program Manager Mark Strudley. 

“This is huge,” he said. “We’ve never been here before.”

Strudley said the project will include rebuilding most of the levees from Highway 1 to Murphy’s Crossing and up Salsipuedes Creek.

The release of the report unlocks about $100 million in state funding, and allows the county to apply for $1.4 million in federal funding, Strudley said. 

He added that environmental impact studies are expected to begin within one year.

It is still unclear where the rest of the funding will come from. The PRWFPA will form a Joint Powers Authority in early 2020 to manage the project.

That agency, among other things, could consider a property tax assessment to raise funds and seek grants.

“This is step one,” said Nancy Bilicich, who serves on the board of the Santa Cruz County Flood Control and Water Conservation District Zone 7, the board that oversees the decisions made about the levee. “We’ve been waiting for over 20 years.”

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