Posted on March 27, 2023
IN THE SUMMER OF 1926, HEAVY RAINS ACROSS THE MIDWEST SWELLED THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER TO RECORD LEVELS, precipitating a catastrophe that would unfold in slow motion: The following spring, some levees along the river – they stretched 1,100 miles, from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico – started to fail, which ultimately culminated in the largest river flooding disaster in American history.
It became known as the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and 27,000 square miles in seven states were inundated with the floodwaters. In Mississippi, Black men – sharecroppers and tenant farmers who were ostensibly free men – were forced, under the watch of rifle-toting men from the National Guard, to raise the height of the levees with sandbags until the moment the levee breached north of Greenville. Up to 1,000 people died and hundreds of thousands were displaced, and the flood helped fuel the Great Migration, when many Blacks in the South resettled in states further north.
In many ways, that flood reflected realities that have played out in communities all across America in the decades since, including the one that hit the Pajaro community starting on March 11, when the Pajaro River levee breached just after midnight, 2.9 miles east of the town of about 2,900 residents. The same is true for the floods that hit Pajaro in previous decades, including in 1995 and 1998.
One common thread is that the flooding in Pajaro has disproportionately impacted low-income residents. Many homes have been damaged, and according to initial inspections by Cal Fire officials, three residences were destroyed.
Another is that the levees were designed by U.S. Army engineers, and in the case of both rivers, there were those who long predicted the systems would fail. That’s in part because the levees constrained the rivers into too narrow of a channel, which gave the raging waters more power than the levees could contain.
The Pajaro River levee system was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1949, and first failed just six years later, in 1955. It breached again in 1958, 1995 and in 1998. In the latter case, it was on the northern bank of the river west of Highway 1, and largely impacted agricultural land.
A project to improve the levee system was authorized by Congress in 1966, but for more than 50 years, it languished. Initially, according to an Army Corps report, it was deferred due to lack of local support. But as time went on, the primary reason was that the rubric the Army Corps long used to determine whether to fund a project was based on a math calculation, a benefit-cost ratio (BCR) predicated on the property values that a project would protect. How benefits are calculated is an inherently subjective metric, but the math is simple: Benefits divided by cost equals x. (A project with $2 in benefits and that costs $1 would have a BCR score of 2.0.)
In the case of Pajaro, where property values are lower than more affluent communities, it never penciled out according to the Army Corps’ benefit-cost ratio. Per the 2020 census, around 81 percent of the homes in Pajaro are worth less than $500,000, and over 20 percent are valued below $300,000. More than 73 percent of its residents are renters. (Countywide, by comparison, about 48 percent of residents are renters, and the median home price of owner-occupied homes is $596,400.)
And even as the current Army Corps project to shore up the levees was federally approved in December 2019, it wasn’t funded beyond the initial planning stage. Its BCR score at the time was 1.02. And that number was only reached after lobbying by local officials – Congressman Jimmy Panetta played an outsized role – to reconsider how the benefits are calculated.
Stu Townsley, a project management engineer for the Army Corps’ San Francisco district, says historically, projects had to hit a BCR score threshold of 2.5 or higher to merit consideration for funding. It was a scoring system, he says, that started in the 1940s after the federal government began cracking down on pork barrel projects that members of Congress added in the earmark process which, Townsley says, “didn’t add much value at all.”
The guidelines the Army Corps uses now date back to 1983, and while they were updated during the Obama administration, the revised guidelines have yet to be implemented – that’s still another year or two out. When they are implemented, the Army Corps will be empowered to take a more holistic view for how to value projects, including factors like environmental justice.
In Townsley’s opinion, the Pajaro project’s BCR score, which is a product of scoring guidelines codified 40 years ago, “didn’t address the overall value” of shoring up the levees to take into account things like environmental benefits and the value of lives, safety and livelihoods.
“The challenge for both Watsonville and Pajaro, on both sides of the river, is there isn’t that much housing,” Townsley says. “It’s mostly agricultural land, and ag land doesn’t drive the benefits up very high.”
Yet even while the Obama-era guidelines have yet to take effect, the federal government’s aperture for how to value projects eventually widened to a more holistic view in 2021 and 2022, and the Pajaro levee project got its first allocations of federal funding, totaling $149 million, and a promise from the state to pay its share as the project is designed and built. (Sixty-five percent of the money for the project will come from the federal government, and 35 percent from the state.) The estimated cost, in December 2019, was just over $434 million. Mark Strudley, executive director of the Pajaro River Flood Management Agency, says it’s now expected to exceed $500 million, and that the Army Corps is in the process of updating that number. If so, that would make the funding at least $175 million short on the federal side.
And like all Army Corps projects, the ongoing maintenance is incumbent on local government agencies, and in June 2022, residents in the Pajaro region voted with a 79-percent majority to add an assessment on their properties – $16 per residence, per month – to close an annual $1.2 million shortfall for funding the levee system’s maintenance. (The total cost of the maintenance, annually, is about $3.8 million.)
The project remains in the design stage, and construction is not expected to begin on its first phase until 2025. When completed – and it’s not clear when that will be – it’s expected to provide protection, 90 percent of the time, against a 100-year flood event, which has a 1-percent chance of occurring in any given year.
But unfortunately for Pajaro, the shift in the federal government’s assessment came too late. “It’s tragic this happened now, when we’re so close to starting construction,” Townsley says.
THE PAJARO RIVER WATERSHED DRAINS APPROXIMATELY 1,300 SQUARE MILES IN FOUR DIFFERENT COUNTIES – Santa Clara, San Benito, Santa Cruz and Monterey – and its headwaters are just southeast of Gilroy, near San Felipe Lake. And even though the river only passes through a relatively small part of the latter two counties, that is where the flooding occurs as the river swells and gains power on its path toward the sea.
So for Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, it makes sense to act as one when addressing the downstream impact and manage the Army Corps project once completed – the river is the border between the two counties.
To that end, the Pajaro River Flood Management Agency formed in the summer of 2021. It’s a joint powers authority comprising Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, the Monterey County Water Resources Agency and the city of Watsonville. It was created to help facilitate the project – the Army Corps prefers to deal with a single entity, Strudley says – and so that ongoing maintenance of the levees will be streamlined, as there are cost savings in keeping it “under one roof.”
Strudley, a hydrologist, is widely considered to be the leading expert on the Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project – Panetta calls him Mark “Studley.” Before coming to PRFMA, which he was instrumental in creating, he was most recently a flood control and division manager for the Santa Cruz County Department of Public Works from 2017 to 2021, until PRFMA was formed.
But while the partial funding and momentum for the project was a welcome development, it doesn’t appear the project – as proposed and approved – would have prevented the breach that occurred March 11 (it’s a known unknown). But, Strudley says, it would have prevented flooding in the Pajaro community, if not the agricultural fields further east.
The project is divided in sections, and only three of them are along the Pajaro River; the rest are along Corralitos Creek in Watsonville. The easternmost section along the Pajaro River, where the levee is planned to be reconstructed with a 100-foot setback from its current alignment, stops about 1.8 miles west of where the levee breached March 11. From there, Strudley says, there is planned to be what is called a “tieback” levee running north-south across San Juan Road and the railroad tracks.
Strudley is not a fan of that aspect of the current plan – he thinks the Army Corps is underestimating the cost of grading to get the road and tracks over the levee (or perhaps, building floodgates), and he’s in favor of abolishing that north-south piece and instead shoring up the levee along the river further east, just past where the levee breached.
And in light of recent events, he says, he intends to push harder for that change to be made – which was part of the proposed plan until 2015 – and for the project to be expedited and fully funded as soon as possible.
But the problem, he says, goes back to the benefit-cost ratio: the Army Corps doesn’t put the same value on farmland, or necessarily take into account the livelihoods it facilitates.
Former District 2 county supervisor John Phillips, whose district included Pajaro, was deeply involved in the levee project until his retirement in 2022. He recalls being part of a meeting at some point with a general with the Army Corps when he and others advocated for what Strudley is now pushing for: moving the levee restoration further east.
“He said, ‘If you keep pushing to extend the project further upriver, we’ll kill it.’ So we didn’t have a choice,” Phillips says.
THE NEED FOR A MORE PROTECTIVE LEVEE SYSTEM in the Pajaro Valley became apparent in 1955, just six years after the Army Corps built the existing levee system. In that storm, flooding in Watsonville along Corralitos Creek – where the Army Corps still hasn’t built levees – submerged 29 city blocks up to a depth of two feet.
And the flood that caused the most damage, in 1995, was nowhere in the neighborhood of a 100-year event. According to the Army Corps, recent hydrologic analysis indicates it was only a 15.4-year event, meaning there’s a 6.5-percent chance, on any given year, for floodwaters to exceed the system’s protective capacity.
Those are harrowing odds over time, but under the federal funding guidelines dating back to 1983, the benefit-to-cost ratio put the project well out of reach of getting funded, regardless of lobbying by local officials – at least until recently.
Even then, local officials didn’t get what they hoped for – getting a project done was too important to jeopardize, so they went along with it.
Though there is now a sense of renewed hope for the eastward extension Strudley is advocating for, but even if it gets greenlit, it wouldn’t happen anytime soon: The first phases of the project will be along Corralitos Creek, where a levee will be built with a 50 – to 225-foot setback. Strudley says rebuilding the levee on the Pajaro River to the east of the town – which would have a 100-foot setback from its current alignment – won’t start until 2027, at the earliest.
But that the project has even come this far is a major break from the past. For that, Strudley gives much credit to local and state politicians including State Sen. John Laird, U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend and Phillips – and most of all, Panetta.
“You can’t have just a casual congressional delegation working on a project,” Strudley says. “Lucky for us, Jimmy Panetta has been that person.”
As of January, Pajaro is no longer in Panetta’s district – it’s now in Lofgren’s. Panetta says that’s irrelevant to him – he’s been fighting for the Army Corps project for years and will continue doing so, even if it’s no longer in his constituency (he toured the levee and Pajaro community on March 17).
“You can’t put a price on lives in Pajaro,” Panetta says. “You’ve got to do everything you can to fight for your priorities.”
Panetta credits the Biden administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act, which Biden signed into law in November 2021. It is through that legislation the federal portion of the project is partially funded. And there’s at least one more round of funding to come from that law that could potentially close the shortfall.
And like Strudley, he’s still advocating for the levee restoration to be extended further upriver.
“The push and pressure have to be constant,” Panetta says.
AT THE FEDERAL LEVEL, two major dominos fell in the last two-plus years in terms of how the project was valued, and ultimately, secured funding.
The first was a Jan. 5, 2021 memorandum from R.D. James, then assistant secretary of the Army’s civil works division. The purpose of the memo, he wrote, is so the Army Corps’ “decision framework considers, in a comprehensive manner, the total benefits of project alternatives, including equal consideration of economic, environmental and social categories.”
The second was the Biden administration’s 2022 “Justice40” initiative, which, among other things, called for Army Corps projects to deliver 40 percent of their overall benefits to “disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.”
Pajaro fits that description, but it came too late to prevent this winter’s flood. Fortunately, state-hired contractors were able to plug the levee breach March 14, and work continues around the clock to raise the height of the repair work.
Friend, who lives in Aptos and is chair of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, says there is no single issue he’s worked on more since taking office a decade ago.
“My focus has been: How do you break out of a 60-year feasibility process?” Friend says. He adds that Pajaro’s situation is not unique across the country, where projects have long languished in low-income communities. “There needs to be a systemic change.”
That change is starting to happen, and the need for it will become even more pronounced in the coming decades as climate change exacerbates flooding events.
Monterey County has thousands of residents that live along its rivers and creeks, and no amount of infrastructure can protect them in every case. But as disasters continue to increase in intensity in the years to come, it’s incumbent on local officials to make planning decisions accordingly, and to fight as hard as they can for the communities that need their help most.