Padilla Presses for Additional Federal Assistance for Pajaro and Central Valley Communities
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, Chair of the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife, questioned witnesses at a hearing titled “The US Army Corps Budget 2024 and Implementation of Water Resources Development Act of 2022.” During the hearing, Padilla spoke with Michael C. Connor, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, and pressed for additional federal assistance for Pajaro and communities in the San Joaquin Valley following devastating flooding in the region.
Padilla opened his remarks by recognizing the Army Corps’ work to accelerate the Pajaro River flood protection project in order to safeguard the community from future natural disasters and urged the Corps to provide emergency assistance to these communities equitably. He also once again raised the issue of the Corps’ “Benefit Cost Ratio” (BCR) formula—which is based in part on property values and routinely overlooks low-income areas, asking Secretary Connor if he agreed that the BCR formula disadvantages communities like Pajaro. Secretary Connor agreed that the BCR formula negatively impacts rural and minority communities and committed to working with Padilla to better balance environmental, social, and economic benefits when considering which projects to prioritize.
Padilla then raised Tulare Lake, which has been dry for 25 years but is reappearing after record breaking storms buffeted the state. He asked Secretary Connor to share what the Army Corps’ is doing to proactively to bolster communities in the low-lying areas of the San Joaquin Valley ahead of the “Big Melt” and against potential flood risks. Connor highlighted the ongoing interagency coordination between the Corps, the California Department of Water Resources, and local officials.
- PADILLA: The Army Corps is clearly critical to California, and I particularly appreciate your willingness to work with the town of Pajaro and Watsonville to accelerate the Pajaro River flood protection project in order to safeguard the community from future natural disasters. We’ve spoken about it directly, I know you’ve had a chance to visit and see firsthand. But now I want to urge the Corps to provide the emergency assistance necessary to these communities who have been left behind in so many ways and are oftentimes disproportionately impacted by natural disasters like what we’ve experienced in recent months. […] The Pajaro River Project was long overlooked, because it would protect, imagine this, it would protect a low-income community with what is considered relatively speaking lower property values. […] So, I want to ask for the record, Secretary Conner, do you agree that the Benefit Cost Ratio systematically disadvantages underserved communities like Pajaro, and will you also commit to working with us on a permanent fix?
- CONNOR: Senator, I appreciate the question. I absolutely agree with you that whether they be rural or minority communities are systematically disadvantaged by our current Benefit Cost Ratio processes. And I will absolutely work with you we have an initiative in place that I think you’re aware of to institute a rulemaking to address principles requirements guidelines, how we will apply them to better balance, environmental, social, as well as economic benefits.
- PADILLA: In California, we are facing a special kind of weather whiplash right now. I’ve talked about the storms that lead to record snowpack. And in fact, snowpack in California right now measures about 254 percent of average, and six feet of snow sits in many places that were bare ground just a year ago. As this historic snowpack melts this spring, we’re seeing the reemergence of Tulare Lake, a lake that has been dry for 25 years, but has the capacity to hold three to four times more water than Lake Tahoe. […] Can you share with the committee what the Army Corps is working on in collaboration with the state of California to bolster communities in the low lying areas of the San Joaquin Valley against potential flood risks?
- CONNOR: We immediately started to improve our interagency coordination between the Corps, the Department of Water Resources, and local officials. During the event itself, I got several calls. So general in the leadership of the Corps to better coordinate how we were making releases, so that would prepare the Levee District boards, their operators as well as the state.
Padilla previously pushed the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Shalanda Young, to ensure adequate resources go to historically overlooked and low-income communities like Pajaro. He also met with families, small business owners, and farmers in Watsonville and Pajaro impacted by the storms. The visit came after he successfully led the California Congressional delegation in urging the Biden Administration to approve a Major Disaster Declaration in response to the severe weather events.