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Monterey spent one-fifth what Santa Cruz did on Pajaro River flood control. Did that contribute to catastrophic levee break?

Twelve miles of levees were built to hold back the Pajaro River — a waterway with Monterey County on one side, Santa Cruz County on the other. But a Bay Area News Group review reveals there had been significantly less flood control work on the south bank where the levee failed this month, catastrophically flooding the small farming town of Pajaro, than along the north bank, where the city of Watsonville escaped a similar fate.

That may help explain why the nearly 75-year-old south levee crumbled March 11, despite the river never rising to levels historically associated with disastrous floods — or even topping flood stage.

It could almost be called the Tale of Two Levees.

Because the river forms the border between the two counties, flood control work — including levee maintenance like tree and vegetation removal, rodent control and slope rehabilitation — has historically been done by separate agencies that devoted vastly different resources to the upkeep, the news organization’s review found.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is flanked by Santa Cruz County Supervisor Felipe Hernandez, left, Santa Cruz County Undersheriff Chris Clark, Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo and Monterey County Sheriff Tina Nieto as he tours flood damage in Pajaro on Wednesday. (Shmuel Thaler – Santa Cruz Sentinel) 

Along the river’s north bank, the Santa Cruz County Flood Control and Water Conservation District Zone 7 has spent $16.9 million in the last three years on Pajaro flood control work.

Along the south bank, the Monterey County Water Resources Agency spent about $3.4 million over those same years on Pajaro flood control work, almost five times less.

Local flood control officials wouldn’t say whether the disparities played a role in the levee’s failure, insisting the question requires a deeper analysis. Still, the revelations about maintenance raise new questions about the south levee’s integrity, given that it failed despite the river cresting 3 feet below flood stage. The levee on the Monterey County side also breached in a second spot downriver from Pajaro, where it didn’t pose a threat to the town.

“People are starting right now to play the blame game when the focus should be on recovery,” said Mark Strudley, executive director at the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency, which was formed in 2021 to provide more coordinated Pajaro Valley flood control ahead of a long-planned levee replacement.

Lew Bauman, the Monterey County Water Resources Agency’s interim general manager, would only echo Strudley’s response.

“Our focus is on recovery and re-entry” of the town’s flooded out residents, Bauman said, “and I most appreciate your understanding.”

Details on how the maintenance money was spent on either side of the river were not available last week. But those who live and work in Pajaro say the relative lack of maintenance along the Monterey County side of the river had significant consequences.

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“We know that there isn’t proper maintenance done on river itself to protect the levees, to have trees removed, shrubs removed, in order for water to move more freely,” said Fabiola Alcaraz, office manager for a company that provides cold storage for fresh-picked fruit in Pajaro. “The other side, Santa Cruz County, does maintain and makes sure it’s in proper condition. Our side, Monterey County, we don’t see them doing the work.”

Vehicles and homes engulfed by floodwaters in Pajaro, California on Saturday, March 11, 2023. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
Vehicles and homes engulfed by floodwaters in Pajaro, California on Saturday, March 11, 2023. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images/TNS) 

Laura Garcia, who returned to her mud-filled home with many other Pajaro residents Thursday, said she’s long sensed their side of the river wasn’t getting the attention and work it needed.

“Pajaro always gets the short end of the stick,” Garcia said. “We always get less help compared to Watsonville. Pajaro isn’t on the list of places to save. It’s an abandoned place.”

It has long been known that the river’s levee system, built in 1949, offers inadequate protection. Before this year, the town of Pajaro suffered disastrous flooding in 1955, 1958, 1995 and 1998 — when the river rose much higher than it did this month. A long-planned $400 million, six-year improvement project to provide 100-year flood protection just got funded last fall and is expected to get underway in 2025.

In the meantime, the National Weather Service says the Pajaro River’s flood stage starts at 32 feet, where levees on both sides of the river are within half a foot of overtopping. At 32.5 feet, the levees could overtop or breach and the Pajaro Valley could see at least moderate flooding, and at 33 feet, major flooding.

That’s what happened in Pajaro’s worst floods — Feb. 3, 1998, when the river crested at 33.74 feet, Mar. 11, 1995, when it reached 32.2 feet, April 3, 1958, when it hit 33.11 feet, and Dec. 24, 1955, when it topped 32.46 feet.

The trouble for the Pajaro levee this year began after New Year’s Eve storms left a low spot in the south bank levee. Flood control officials to put up a temporary Muscle Wall, a half-mile long, two-foot high portable barrier of plastic, water-filled containers linked together ahead of another powerful Jan. 10 storm that brought the river to 27.77 feet, causing some flooding in low-lying areas. But on that day the river didn’t breach.

As another storm approached March 10, Monterey County officials again warned residents along the Pajaro to prepare for possible flood evacuation, as they did for those along the Salinas and Carmel rivers. That night state officials positioned “flood fighters” to keep watch along the Pajaro River and other trouble spots.

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Monterey County Water Resources Agency engineer Mark Foxworthy was on the levee late that night and saw water burbling up through holes in the river’s southern embankment. Crews sandbagged around them, but a sinkhole began to form and crews fled to safety as it widened. Shortly after midnight on March 11, Foxworthy recalled hearing the Muscle Wall crack and separate and the river rush through. The river had crested at 29.2 feet — still well below flood stage.

Foxworthy wouldn’t comment on what might have caused the levee to fail.

“I can’t answer until there’s an investigation,” Foxworthy said, “and I won’t speculate.”

State Sen. John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, who authored the bill for the state to fund the levee replacement project, said this month’s flood is the agonizing tragedy he and others were trying to avoid.

“We have this project completely funded and we just didn’t get to it” in time, Laird said. “It’s just heartbreaking.”

A Pajaro resident salvages belongings from his flooded home on Saturday, March 11, 2023. (Shmuel Thaler - Santa Cruz Sentinel)
A Pajaro resident salvages belongings from his flooded home on Saturday, March 11, 2023. (Shmuel Thaler – Santa Cruz Sentinel) 

Laird said that there may be other explanations for the levee failure than local maintenance spending. He said levees came close to failing on the Santa Cruz side too, and that it’s possible silt buildup in the river channel over the years may have reduced its capacity, effectively lowering its flood stage.

He said he’s aware of the funding disparities on each side of the river, but insisted it’s not because Pajaro mostly is home to low-paid farmworkers. There are also many farmworkers who live across the river in Watsonville, but it’s a city of more than 50,000 with a larger tax base than Pajaro, a town of 3,000.

“When you talk about expenditures related to the river, even though both sides are disadvantaged, there’s many more people on one side to spread out the cost,” Laird said.

The new Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency will oversee the rebuilt levee system, paid by federal and state funds, and maintenance will be funded by a special assessment property owners on both sides of the river overwhelmingly approved last June.

Laird said having one agency overseeing flood control on both sides of the river will be a big improvement.

“This is one system,” Laird said, “and tending to it as one system is going to be smarter under the new district going forward.”

Staff Writer Aldo Toledo contributed to this report.

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