Before a disastrous flood, officials knew the Pajaro River embankment could fail but took no action

Officials have known for decades that the Pajaro River embankment that failed over the weekend – flooding an entire town with migrants and trapping dozens of residents – was vulnerable but never prioritized repairs in part because ‘They thought it didn’t make financial sense to protect the low-income area, interviews and recordings show.

“It was pretty much recognized in the early ’60s that the levees were probably not adequate for the water this system receives,” said Stu Townsley, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assistant district engineer for water management. project for the San Francisco area. The Times Sunday.

And although he’s studied it on and off for years, in terms of “benefit-cost ratios,” it’s never been defined, he said.

“It’s a low-income area. They are largely farm laborers who live in the town of Pajaro,” Townsley said. “So you’re basically getting construction costs in the Bay Area, but the property value isn’t that high.”

The seawall was built in 1949 and, according to a summary of the system’s 2021 Army Corps webpage, “no longer provides the level of protection intended.”

An aerial photo shows the majority of the town of Pajaro, Calif., in northern Monterey County.

The northern Monterey County town of Pajaro, just across the Pajaro River from Watsonville, was submerged in floodwaters on Sunday.

(Shmuel Thaler / Sentinel of Santa Cruz)

Flooding has occurred five times since its completion, including a breach in 1995 in which two people drowned and economic damage was estimated at $50 million to $95 million. Flooding occurred again in 1997, and in 1998 President Clinton issued a disaster declaration. More recently, there was a near flood in 2017 and again last January when residents of Pajaro were evacuated for a week.

But three years ago, “As part of the global environmental justice reset of the Federal Corps of Engineers, OMB, Congress, all recognized that if you looked exclusively at benefit-cost ratios, you wouldn’t be funding projects in areas that were typically lower-income,” Townsley said.

The Corps therefore launched a study which resulted in a report demonstrating “there would be some life safety value, even if the benefit-cost ratio of the project were close enough to unity for the costs to be equal to the benefits,” he said.

And they are currently designing a system that they hope to have built in the next two years, he said, funded by the Infrastructure Employment Act and state money – guaranteed by a project Bill of 2021 that directed the Department of Water Resources to pay 100% of the cost to the state for the reconstruction of the Pajaro/Watsonville levee system.

“It’s tragic that we got this just before we started construction,” Townsley said, referring to the breach and flooding.

Esteban Sepulveda holds his dog, Milo, as he left his home in Pajaro Valley, Calif., on Sunday.

Esteban Sepulveda holds his dog, Milo, as he left his home in Pajaro Valley, Calif., on Sunday.

(Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)

The region is bracing for another round of rain from Monday, raising more flood concerns as officials continue to assess damage from the weekend storm. More than 5,000 people in Monterey County remained under an evacuation order or warning as of Sunday, with more than 200 sheltering at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds and a church in Salinas.

“Low-income neighborhoods and communities have historically been ignored by state and federal governments,” said Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo.

“Pajaro’s story is exactly that. There was a lack of commitment from our federal and state governments,” he said. “Residents never felt they had this kind of support, knowing that the danger, the risk, has always been there.”

Farshid Vahedifard, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Mississippi State University, said communities living near levees are often underserved or economically disadvantaged.

City, local and state governments “have a history, you know, a long history of levee discrimination. They are a good example of the infrastructure equity issues we have faced for decades,” he said.

Cars detour on State Route 144 as both sides of Highway 99 are closed due to major flooding in Earlimart in Tulare County.

Cars detour on State Route 144 as both sides of Highway 99 are closed due to major flooding in Earlimart in Tulare County.

(Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In a recent article, Vahedifard noted that inland flooding had caused 624 deaths in the United States and $164 billion in damage “which disproportionately affects disadvantaged communities.”

Pajaro is in the unincorporated county of Monterey. Although it is across the river from Watsonville and in a different county, the two communities share a zip code. Pajaro does not have its own post office.

According to Alfredo Torres, a Watsonville resident who grew up in Pajaro, the small Monterey County town is considered the region’s backwater.

“It doesn’t have the urban conveniences of Watsonville,” he said, and because it’s in an unincorporated area, utilities — such as law enforcement — are pretty minimal. .

Watsonville’s population is close to 53,000; Pajaro’s is around 3,000.

On Saturday, most evacuees from Pajaro to the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds were primarily Spanish-speaking. Pajaro resident Andres Garcia said many are migrant farm workers who work on nearby strawberry farms.

Alejo said both communities are economically disadvantaged, which is why historically so little effort has been made to reinforce the levee. Per capita income in both communities is less than half of the state and national average.

He said it also made it difficult for cities to pay for levee repairs.

Although the corps had nearly $150 million in federal funding, states and local communities were expected to pay 50% of the cost, of which up to 70% was borne by the state. The rest fell on local communities.

“It was tough, because it’s tens of millions of dollars that local low-income families could never afford,” Alejo said.

In 2021, Sen. John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) drafted a bill requiring the state to fully fund the project. Last fall, Laird and others held a ceremony celebrating the funding for the levee project.

“I said a version of ‘I hope it doesn’t rain before it’s done,'” he said.

Laird worked for years to get funds to fix the system. He said he was on county staff in 1995 when the river flooded and spent several nights at the fairgrounds “where many of the same families who are being evacuated this time.”

According to county officials, the state is trying to plug the breach — which reached 120 feet — with granite boulders.

A successful take, however, comes with risks, Townsley said.

“This next wave [of weather] happening is going to put additional pressure on the system and so you’re in this weird place where the breach actually reduces the pressure on the Watsonville side,” he said. “Once again, the lowest income community is now bearing the brunt…”

This isn’t just a problem for Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. Scientific research shows that global warming intensifies the water cycle and is expected to trigger more extreme storms, increasing flood risk.

California emergency officials said on Sunday they are already coordinating plans to position flood response personnel, including swiftwater rescue teams, ahead of the next storm.

“We map where the next storm is going to hit and put resources” – firefighters, National Guard crews, ocean-going vehicles – “in areas where the storm is going to be the most violent or where there are already rivers that are swollen, so if something happens you can quickly get in and save people,” said Brian Ferguson, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

A recent state flood protection plan for the Central Valley says catastrophic flooding would threaten millions of Californians, plunging many areas under water and causing death and destruction on an unprecedented scale. Damage could total up to $1 trillion.

The plan calls for investments of $25 billion to $30 billion over the next 30 years in the Central Valley, with recommendations ranging from strengthening levees to restoring natural floodplains along the rivers.

The plan says state agencies “strive to unify an approach to understanding and addressing equity and social justice through flood management programs” and “recognize that a valley-focused inquiry focus on how inequalities and injustices influence flood management is still needed”.

“The last time there was a flood here was in 1995, and there was talk then of doing things” to address the levee, said Glenn Church, a member of the County Board of Supervisors. Monterey. He sighed. “The government sometimes moves a bit slowly.

“It would have been great if all of this could have been done sooner,” Church said. “But I’m just glad to see that there are finally permanent solutions in place to deal with this, so we don’t have to deal with this every 10 or 20 years.”

Times staff writers Emily Alpert Reyes, Ian James and Hannah Fry contributed to this report.

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