Will the levee ever be replaced? After another breach of the Pájaro River, neighbors wonder if the necessary repairs will ever take place


By Olga Rosales Salinas

The news that the Pájaro River overflowed its levee on Saturday, at about midnight, is really nothing new. This isn’t the first time the river has run amok, inundating the town of Pájaro and causing flooding and damage to homes and businesses. It has happened several times since the levee was constructed in 1948.

When the levee breached in 1995, the community of Pájaro was evacuated, and nearly 2,500 residents were sent to shelters. A federal emergency was declared, followed by a lawsuit from 250 residents and businesses in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, a case that the residents and businesses won. In 1998, the river overtopped the levee again.

I was a kid when this happened, but old enough to assume that when the federal government stepped up, the levee would have to be repaired (or replaced) with federal funding. If the money didn’t come from the federal government, the lawsuit undoubtedly would put pressure on the state to repair and replace a damaged and insufficient levee. But it was not to be.

During New Year’s celebrations ending 2022, the Central Coast was hit with a series of severe atmospheric river storms. I feared for the levee and the residents of the Pájaro community while storms raged, one after the other, along the Monterey Bay and throughout California. Pájaro was evacuated, and the levee was fortified enough to hold back the Pájaro River. The levee didn’t breach during the New Year’s storms, but the surrounding neighborhoods, specifically where the Salsipuedes Creek meets the Pájaro River, did see severe storm damage.

In the days after the New Year’s storms, I spoke to several family members, friends and neighbors, whose homes suffered flood damage and were scrambling to make sense of their flood insurance claims. Some residents with no insurance filed paperwork with FEMA, hoping for reprieve. As the water subsided, and sandbags lay dormant lining garage doors and cul-de-sacs, one comment from Mark Strudley, executive director of Pájaro Regional Flood Management Agency (PRFMA), felt ominous: “We don’t know what the rest of the winter season is going to look like. We could see the same type of flooding again in a few weeks,” he said. He wasn’t wrong.

Today, as the residents of Pájaro sit in shelters under evacuation orders, residents in the surrounding areas face new and mounting problems. Their homes are yet again flooded, the water damage now doubly severe, and the question begs an answer: Will the levee ever be replaced?

A sign at the top of the bridge connecting Pájaro and Watsonville describes a construction project to repair damaged parts of the levee, with an estimated end date of 2012. Yes, 2012. With that sign in mind, speaking to Mark Strudley felt like a history lesson, noting all the plans and red tape associated with levee repairs projected for 2025.

What work has been done in the last 30 years? The Federal Flood Contract Act of 1996 was passed to repair damage to the Pájaro River levees, but the repair efforts were stalled by bad planning. Since then, local governments have gone from one storm to the next, implementing flood mitigation and evacuations when necessary — the most recent in 2017, when the levee was nearly breached.

Juan Trujillo, community services sergeant with the nearby Watsonville Police Department, told me in February, “We’re not ready for the next storm. We weren’t ready for this one.” We spoke about the evacuations in January and how frustrating they could be for residents who had to find shelter, only to return days later without much storm damage to their property. “We need to do a better job of communicating the exact reason that we send out evacuation orders to residents,” said Trujillo. “We evacuated in January to help crews come in and fortify the levee. When the residents don’t know exactly why we’re doing the things we do, it can seem like an unnecessary hassle. The next time around they won’t evacuate.”

This time around, evacuation orders were sent at midnight Friday and the police department was going door to door at 1:30 a.m. County officials knocked on doors the afternoon before, when worries that the levee would break started to mount. FEMA set up assistance at shelters at Ramsey Park during the New Year’s storms, and according to the Santa Cruz Country Twitter page (@sccounty) shelter is available at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds. According to a notice sent out by Monterey County officials, “The closest evacuation shelter to the Community of Pájaro is at the Santa Cruz County Fairground, 2061 E. Lake Blvd., Watsonville. There is an additional shelter in Salinas at Compass Church, 10325 S. Main Street. The County has established a Temporary Evacuation Center at the Prunedale Library, 17822 Moro Rd.” As of Saturday, Monterey County has also advised residents of Pájaro not to drink the water for fear of contamination.

In January I spoke to Colleen Kumanda McGown, a resident of Watsonville, who lives at the end of College Road south of Pájaro. Her neighborhood saw five feet of water during the New Year’s storms. The neighbors banded together to help each other protect their homes, and shared a kayak to help get elderly residents to safety. We spoke again the morning of March 11 and she was again evacuated, this time staying with friends, hoping she’ll be able to return home soon.

Nick Peña lives at the end of Blossom Drive in a Watsonville neighborhood that sits adjacent to two separate waterways, the Salsipuedes Creek and the Pájaro River. His neighborhood is also surrounded by agricultural land that experienced flooding. All three stories of Peña’s home saw severe water damage in January. As of Friday, his home was already flooded to the level it had been in early January. His neighbor, who wanted to remain anonymous, had this to say about city governance and levee management: “This whole situation could have been avoided. They’ve had 25 years to repair or even replace the levee and they’ve done nothing.” He is a retiree now facing an insurance claim that he won’t see anything from for months. After the levee breached, he’ll be looking at even more damage to his property.

What is the city doing in order to repair and replace the damage to the levee? Pájaro Regional Flood Management Agency has a plan that consists of a $400 million investment to repair the levee, giving the area a 100-year flood protection, instead of the eight- to 10-year flood protection that the levee currently provides. The project is in the pre-construction, engineering and design phase and is funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the California Department of Water Resources.

During a public meeting of the PRFMA, one resident asked if the repairs to the levee after the 1995 storm were the reason that the levee held, for the most part, during the New Year’s storms of 2023. The board’s response pointed to the fact that there was simply less water in the New Year’s storm system than there was in storms of 1995.

On March 11, the storm brought enough water for an entire section of the levee to be unrecognizable from drone footage. The levee has been breached, the residents are evacuated, and everyone I spoke to in January is again in shelters or staying with family.

Chair of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors Luis Alejo (a former mayor of Watsonville) posted a picture of the current situation at the levee and a plea for the more than 1,700 residents affected by evacuation orders. He also asked President Biden and Gov. Gavin Newsom to visit the town of Pájaro. The president visited Santa Cruz County in January, flying into the Watsonville Airport, but then headed north to Aptos, Capitola and Santa Cruz.

Will a presidential visit to Pájaro make the PRFMA project slated for 2025 move any faster? For now, residents like Sergio Alvarado, who lives behind the Watsonville High School football stadium, will likely face another foot of water damage to his property, if not more. In January he said, “Within 30 minutes my garage had several feet of water and my backyard was flooding. It was crazy to watch.”

Sara Paramo, an employee at the Valero gas station at the bottom of the Pájaro bridge, will again have to go without work for as long as the evacuation orders stay in place. Several residents talked about looting during the storm, although I have yet to meet any victims of looters. Paramo noted that the residents of the unhoused encampment at the bridge next to Valero had assured her they would prevent looters from breaking into the gas station. “They promised to protect the gas station. They’re sweet old men,” Paramo said. Several residents said they didn’t leave home during the storm because they feared looters.

Businesses like Servpro, an emergency cleanup service, will be back at work this weekend as they were during the January storms. Servpro employee June Kamada was able to help her family during the January storms with a company vehicle. “My boss Steve has been great … very supportive in allowing us to help my family. It was a very traumatic experience,” Kamada said.

What is FEMA doing for residents? Currently, it is providing some flood coverage (see the requirements here). I asked Cetla, an employee of La Chilanguita Restaurant in Watsonville, what the New Year’s storm experience was like for her and the restaurant. She said the restaurant was closed for two weeks, and no one had mentioned FEMA to them. This was surprising, because La Chilanguita is located at the corner where the Salsipuedes Creek and the Pájaro River intersect. The damage to that entire row of businesses was severe in January, and I can imagine it is even worse today.

This is an ongoing story. If you or someone you know is a victim of the New Year’s storms or the current storm in the Pájaro and Watsonville areas, please get in touch with me at Olga@olgarosalessalinas.com

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About Olga Rosales Salinas

Olga Rosales Salinas is a content writer and freelancer who produces poetry, short stories, and essays. Her debut collection of poetry and prose, "La Llorona," was published by Birch Bench Press and is available now on Amazon. Proceeds from the publication benefit The Rosales Sisters' Scholarship; the scholarship is being awarded to students on the Central Coast.