East Bay Times: Sen. Alex Padilla visits Pajaro River with local, federal officials

By Nick Sestanovich

Sen. Alex Padilla made a stop on the Pajaro River just outside Watsonville Wednesday to promote federal efforts to bring aid to the region following the floods that devastated the area in March.

Padilla hosted a press conference near the Thurwachter/McGowan Bridge in unincorporated Monterey County with federal officials, including Rep. Jimmy Panetta, who represents Monterey and Santa Cruz counties in Congress.

The visit came after Padilla and U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren led all 52 of California’s congressional representatives in urging President Joe Biden to approve a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration for the area and allow for federal funding. Padilla, along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein as well as Lofgren and Panetta, previously sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in March urging the federal government to expedite improvements to the levee.

“I know the community here knows this all too well that, in Pajaro and the surrounding communities, residents have endured far too much devastation in recent months,” he said. “Not just in recent months, over the years. Over the last 30 years, there’s been five major floods in the area.”

Padilla talked about the impacts on families, farmers, crops and water quality.

“In moments like these, we know there’s so much work that needs to be done, not just to rebuild communities affected by these atmospheric rivers but to ensure that we rebuild in a way that protects the community far into the future,” he said.

The modernization of the levee was one of many infrastructure projects to be funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2021. Panetta, Feinstein and Padilla included $149 million to rebuild the river’s aging levees, which have been an area of concern for decades and resulted in another major flood to the Pajaro Valley in 1995.

Padilla, Panetta and Lofgren had visited the levee in October to celebrate full funding of the project. After the levee breach, Padilla had pressed Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young on providing equitable funding for communities like Pajaro and Watsonville.

“Climate change means California, including here in the Central Coast, will continue to experience more frequent and more devastating natural disasters and extreme weather,” he said. “It’s low-income communities that face a harder road to recover. There’s still a fundamental flaw in the way the Army Corps of Engineers has done business: by targeting flood protection efforts on property that’s worth the most. Low-income communities with lower property values are far too often left out.”

Padilla said he has pushed the Office of Management and Budget to go beyond the current cost-benefit ratio to ensure lower-income communities receive equitable funding.

Securing funding for repairs to the levee in the Infrastructure Bill is something Padilla was glad to see accomplished.

“Tragically, Mother Nature didn’t wait for the work to get started,” he said. “It’s now our job to make sure that tragedy doesn’t strike again.”

Panetta said the project was all about pressure, in more ways than one.

“The levee and its embankments feel that pressure every time there is an extreme weather event,” he said. “Water pressure that results in the breach of this levee and flooding of these fields that you see all around us, and yes, forcing families to flee their homes. It’s pressure that we have tried to prevent by authorizing this project since 1966.”

Panetta said political leaders have also applied pressure on higher levels of government to initiate the project.

“We’re gonna keep pressure on to start this project so that we can protect the produce and the people of Pajaro Valley.”

Mark Strudley, executive director of the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency, said the community has waited more than 60 years for improvements to the 74-year-old levee.

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