My fellow property owners in portions of Watsonville, Pajaro and surrounding agricultural areas are being offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to end our region’s long, heartbreaking history of catastrophic flooding. We would be crazy to turn it down.
Our area has suffered eight floods in the past 60 years. Our last major levee break and flood in 1995 resulted in two deaths and caused nearly $100 million in property damage. In 2017, we narrowly escaped a repeat of the 1995 flood when we almost lost a levee along the Pajaro River. Had the levee failed, it would have pushed a sea of water through the senior villages in Watsonville. We got lucky that time, but luck is a poor prevention strategy.
Unlike many natural disasters—earthquakes and hurricanes, for example—floods can be prevented. In this case, we can significantly reduce flood risk by building well-engineered levees along the Pajaro River and Salsipuedes Creek. Currently, our weak levees—the only things that stand between us and our next big disaster—provide some of the lowest levels of flood protection in the state. Flooding is not just possible, it is probable.
However, the federal and state governments are throwing us a life raft in the form of the Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project, a $400 million effort to improve levees along the Pajaro River and Salsipuedes Creek. The project will provide 100-year flood protection, meaning once it’s completed properties will be removed from the FEMA Special Flood Hazard Area. Not only will we have a high level of flood protection, but we’ll no longer be subject to requirements for high-cost flood insurance and restrictions on building and improvements to our properties.
Typically, local government agencies need to provide about 10% funding toward such a project. But our local community does not have a spare $40 million laying around for this. Thankfully, our local leaders were able to convince the state government that this is a worthwhile investment. The federal and state governments will pay 100% of the project construction costs, a first in our state for a levee repair project.
But we can only achieve this 100% funding if we can prove our ability to maintain the levees according to state and federal regulations. Currently, we’re not able to do so. That’s because levee maintenance—which is performed by the counties on their respective sides of the creek and river—is underfunded. If we want the $400 million levee improvement project, we must commit to adequately funding levee maintenance, now and into the future.
The Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency is taking over flood system maintenance on behalf of the counties. This consolidation is expected to improve the quality of services and lower the long-term cost of levee maintenance through costs efficiencies. Currently, the Agency has a $1.2 million shortfall between existing and needed revenues for levee maintenance. To bridge the funding gap, the Agency is proposing an annual property assessment. To put it into perspective, the state and federal investment in levee repairs are worth about $130,000 for every property that will be protected from flooding. The average single-family residential assessment for levee maintenance will be about $16 per month.
We need to improve our levees if we have any hope of having a community safe from periodic flooding. If we support the proposed assessment for levee maintenance, the state and federal governments will pay to construct levee improvements. If we don’t support the proposed assessment, our levees will not be improved. We’ll save a few bucks on the assessment, but we’ll pay much more in the end when we lose lives, homes and businesses to flood damages. I hope you will join me in supporting the proposed assessment because we can’t afford to say no.
Reed Geisreiter is a Watsonville property owner.