California News

New Bill will Help Fund Pajaro River Levee Project

Senate Bill 496 will provide 100-year flood prevention

SB 496 takes effect on Jan. 1, 2022. Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian file

SACRAMENTO—A new bill authored by state Sen. John Laird and Assemblymember Robert Rivas will fund all of the state’s share of the design and construction phase of the Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project, which will help move forward the long-awaited work.

“Today marks a momentous day for the flood-prone communities of Watsonville and Pajaro,” Laird stated in a press release. “Governor [Gavin] Newsom’s signature of [Senate Bill] 496 will provide 100-year flood prevention in a region that has faced years of hardship due to unmet needs for infrastructure repair. This bill reflects a meaningful investment in a safer future for residents of Senate District 17.”

SB 496 directs the Department of Water Resources to pay 100% of the State’s cost-share for reconstruction—a total of $140 million—of the Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project.

Gov. Newsom signed the bill on Sept. 24. 

Before the bill, the State was only set to pay 70% of the total, says Mark Strudley, Interim director of the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency.

Strudley says the funding will mean local leaders will not have to turn to the community to help fund the State’s portion of the project.

While paying for the maintenance and operations of the levee will fall partially to the community once it is completed, that cost will be much lower thanks to SB 496.

“This is going to reduce cost to the community in a big way,” Strudley said.

The next—and significantly more difficult—hurdle will be securing federal funding, for which roughly $260 million is still needed, Strudley says. 

But he adds that the funding from SB 496 will be a signal for federal officials and the Army Corps of Engineers that the Pajaro Levee system is a worthy project.

That would be a big step, since federal allocations often are based on property values, leaving low-income communities such as Pajaro out, Strudley says. 

“We’re hugely thankful to Sen. Laird,” he said. “This is the only authorization like this in the state of California.”

The Pajaro River project affects some of the most productive farmland in the world, as agriculture is a $750 million to $1 billion per year industry in the Pajaro Valley, Laird stated.

Santa Cruz County Supervisor and Chair of the Flood Control and Water Conservation District Zone 7 Zach Friend called the funding “nothing short of historic.” 

“For decades, Watsonville and the Town of Pajaro have lived under the fear of flooding and unquestionably hope is on the horizon,” he said. “With current flood protection levels that are some of the worst in the nation, the State’s assistance cannot come soon enough and is greatly appreciated.”

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.

Nancy Bilicich, co-chair of the Flood Control and Water Conservation District Zone 7, said the funding comes as a measure of success for efforts that have been years in the making. 

“We could not have had better news,” Bilicich said. “Hopefully a new Levee is coming to Watsonville and Pajaro once the voters vote on the issue.”

Watsonville Mayor Jimmy Dutra called the funding a “major milestone.” 

“We are incredibly thankful for Senator Laird’s leadership and advocacy, and the many dedicated City and County staff that helped make this a reality,” Dutra said.

SB 496 will take effect on Jan. 1, 2022.

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