Santa Cruz County has withdrawn from an agreement with Pajaro Valley Regional Flood Management Agency (PRFMA) after the two disagreed on how to spend roughly $1 million in funds meant to address flood risk in South County.
PRFMA is made up of the counties of Santa Cruz and Monterey, Santa Cruz County Flood Control and Water Conservation Zone 7, the Monterey County Water Resources Agency, and the City of Watsonville. It was formed in 2021 to oversee projects and programs to reduce flood risk in the areas surrounding the Pajaro River and its tributaries.
The County Supervisors unanimously approved the withdrawal, which was buried in the consent portion of the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting—a portion of the meeting with limited public discussion and no public comment.
County officials say that, under the cost-sharing agreement with PRFMA—which was approved in December—the agency should use the funds to address issues in Zone 7A of Santa Cruz County Flood Control and Water Conservation District.
That includes both local and regional issues such as flooding in neighborhoods near College Lake, Paulsen Road and Buena Vista, County Public Works Director Matt Machado says.
But PRFMA wants to prioritize localized projects, including replacing a culvert at Lincoln Street in Watsonville for $600,000, decommissioning a culvert on Rodriguez Street in that city for $250,000 and replacing a culvert at Cooley ranch for $700,000, PRFMA Director Mark Strudley says.
After the series of storms that battered the county from January through March, PRFMA informed the county in May that it would not use the funds for projects that fall outside of Pajaro River and Salsipuedes Creek, Machado says.
A large percentage of the devastating flooding in Watsonville occurred when those rivers breached.
“We said, ‘that’s part of the roles and responsibilities,’” Machado says. “We believe that PRFMA is in breach of the contract that we approved in December.”
Zone 7, overseen by its own board of directors, oversees flooding issues in the southern portion of the county. It receives roughly $3 million annually to address issues there.
Zone 7A, by contrast, is overseen by the Board of Supervisors and receives about $100,000 annually from new development fees to pay for local and regional drainage improvements.
It was formed in 2004 to augment Zone 7 revenue sources and to provide the local match share for the Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project (ACOE) and to fund other projects, Strudley says.
Zone 7A has about $1 million in the bank.
During the June 14 PRFMA meeting, Machado asked the agency to approve a cost-sharing agreement, in which the county would take half of the roughly $1 million that PRFMA has in the bank. But the board rejected the offer in a 3-2 vote, triggering the county withdrawal.
Strudley told the supervisors that the move will “drastically underfund” the agency’s activities.
“That constitutes a large part of the capital reserve program of PRFMA, and our capabilities would be limited should that funding go away,” he says.
PRFMA board member Ari Parker called the move a “crippling moment” for the agency, which was formed last year. “Withdrawing funds is not consistent with the notion of a partnership embodied by the formation of our PRFMA (Joint Powers Authority).”
Instead, Parker says, the county should have sought alternative sources for funding their priority projects.
Parker also worries that the disagreement between the county and PRFMA will jeopardize the upcoming $500 million Pajaro Levee restoration project by the Army Corps of Engineers, which is set to begin within the next two years.
“We’re the entity they’re going to sign that contract with,” she says. “If they start seeing that this is cracking around the edges, then they’re going to say, ‘we’re going to step back.’”
Monterey County Supervisor and PRFMA member Luis Alejo says it is too early in the agency’s history to weather funding disputes.
“We need to get back to working on our agency’s scope of projects and getting them done expeditiously for residents on both sides of the river and along the impacted creeks,” he says.
Machado points out that the Pajaro levee project is already funded. Residents living near the system have voted to fund the maintenance and operations through assessments on their property tax bills.
Supervisor Zach Friend says the vote will allow the conversation about how to distribute the funds to continue. But for now, he adds, the county can address ongoing flooding needs.
“I’m uncomfortable there are other elements of flooding that are impacting homes broader in the zone that still need to be addressed,” he says.
Parker says that PRFMA will now determine whether the County’s move was legal, and would consider taking the issue to court if the sides cannot reach an agreement.