California News

Pajaro Levee Project Takes Another Step Forward

The long-awaited Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project looks for funding through a special assessment to property tax bills

Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian file

WATSONVILLE—Voters who live in proximity to the Pajaro River levee system will soon decide on adding a special assessment to their property tax bill that would help fund the long-awaited Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project.

The Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency (PRFMA) on Wednesday took several significant steps forward in making the project reality. Among them: unanimously approving an agreement to pursue cost-sharing agreements for the estimated $3.8 million annual cost for operations, maintenance, repair, replacement and rehabilitation of the levee system with the Monterey County Water Resources Agency, the Santa Cruz Flood Control and Water Conservation District and the city of Watsonville.

But the project will require residents who live in the area to kick in their share, which is estimated at $1.2 million annually.

That would mean adding an average of $255 annually to their property taxes, a number that could increase or decrease based on several factors, including proximity to the levee, property value and relative risk to the property in the event of a flood.

Once completed, local leaders say the project will give up to 100-year protection to residents who live in the flood plain around Pajaro River, Salsipuedes Creek and Corralitos Creek.

The neighborhoods include 55-and-older communities such as Bay Village and Pajaro Village.

The PRFMA also adopted a resolution that will allow the agency to bring the matter to voters. Under Proposition 218, a simple majority of all voters must approve special taxes. The matter is expected to go before voters in April.

Residents will be able to see precisely how much their assessment will be before they vote.

The project also took a step forward thanks to Senate Bill 496, authored by Sen. John Laird. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has offered to design and construct the project, but the more than $400 million price tag—and the local share of $42 million—is more than communities here can afford. But thanks to the new law, which became effective on Jan. 1, the California Department of Natural Resources can pay the cost of design and construction to local jurisdictions.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in January 2021 approved more than $2.8 million in funding for the Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project, thanks in part to Congressman Jimmy Panetta.

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.

“For decades many in the Pajaro Valley have felt that they have been abandoned by federal investment and involvement in this project,” said PRFMA Board Chair Zach Friend, who is also the 2nd District Santa Cruz County Supervisor. “That reality is over—both the state and federal government are now making historic investments and commitments toward the completion of this project and this local commitment for ongoing maintenance is the last key step toward making the project a reality.”

Friend added that, without the needed local funding, the state and federal dollars could be lost.

But with it, the project for which residents have waited for decades could become a reality, he said.

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