Mercury News: Reps. Jimmy Panetta, Zoe Lofgren join Sen. Padilla letter urging Pajaro aid

By Nick Sestanovich

In the aftermath of the March 11 breach of the Pajaro River levee that left the community of Pajaro flooded, Reps. Jimmy Panetta and Zoe Lofgren — who both represent Monterey and Santa Cruz counties in Congress — joined California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla in signing a letter and sending it to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, urging the federal government to expedite improvements to the levee.

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 were able to include $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.

In a statement provided by Padilla’s office, the senator wrote that the recent flooding is a reminder that construction on the Pajaro River levee project needs to get started to prevent any similar disasters in the future.

“We have long known the risks and dangers that these critically deficient levees posed to the communities surrounding the Pajaro River, which is why I helped secure $149 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to reduce the flood risks in the region,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, mother nature did not wait for the project to begin. I’m calling on the Army Corps to release these federal funds more quickly and expedite construction of the Pajaro project to finally protect underserved communities that are too often left to fend for themselves.”

Padilla, Panetta and Lofgren visited the levee in October to celebrate the full funding of the project. The senator had also questioned Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young about funding for critical California flood mitigation projects, including the Pajaro levee, during her nomination hearing last year. Following the levee breach this month, he asked Young if it was possible to think beyond the cost-benefit ratio to ensure communities like Pajaro and Watsonville receive equitable funding.

“Those communities are more than a benefit cost ratio. You have my commitment to work with you, in Congress to make sure there is change beyond when I’m in the seat to make sure that we’re looking at a way to be absolutely cost conscious,” she responded. “This idea that poor communities don’t deserve the same flood control protection as those with higher, higher value and houses is just patently unfair. So I’m sorry, we got there too late to those communities. But, you know, I certainly want to work with you and see what we can do to systemically change this for the future.”

Padilla, Feinstein, Lofgren and Panetta issued a letter to Michael Connor, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, to urge acceleration of construction for the project, repairing the levee and providing emergency repairs for Pajaro and Watsonville, according to a news release from Padilla’s office.

“As you know, the community of Pajaro experienced a serious levee failure on March 11, resulting in the evacuation of over 2,000 people, 200 water rescues, significant flooding of farms, and closure of a major transportation artery (Highway 1),” the lawmakers wrote. “The great majority of those impacted by the floods are farmworkers who have lost both their homes and their livelihoods. As California experiences another atmospheric river storm that will stress the already impacted levee system, we are requesting your assistance in providing emergency repairs and in expediting construction of the Pajaro project.”

The letter specifically requested the Army Corps of Engineers provide Public Law 84-99 funds for emergency rehabilitation “in a manner that rebuilds the levees to meet higher performance standards,” speed up required engineering reviews and project agreements, expedite spending the $149 million in funding provided through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, provide additional federal construction funds to complete the project and allow for the use of “design-build” to deliver the project in a faster manner.
“We remain extremely grateful that this Administration, through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, provided $149 million toward construction of the project,” the lawmakers wrote. “While it was not soon enough to avoid the most recent flood, it was an historic achievement for a project that has been continually neglected for over 50 years.”

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