Age, drought, rodents and neglect weaken California levees, heightening flood danger

Susanne Rust and Ian James, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

LOS ANGELES — The levee breach that left an entire California town underwater this weekend is putting a spotlight on how the state’s vital flood control infrastructure is being weakened by age, drought, climate change, rodents and neglect — leaving scores of communities at risk.

On Friday night, the swollen Pajaro River burst through the worn-down levee, flooding the entire town of Pajaro and sending its roughly 3,000 residents into what officials are now estimating to be a multi-month-long exile. A second breach was reported on Monday.

For decades, the levee was ignored by the federal government — never rising to the status of a fix-worthy project — despite repeated pleas, breaches, floods and even two deaths.

“Yeah, the money wasn’t there because the prioritization wasn’t there,” said Mark Strudley, executive director of the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency.

And as the communities and local government agencies begged for help and funding, the levee aged, eroded and, in some places, sank.

The situation is by no means unique to Pajaro. Experts say similar weaknesses plague levee systems across California and the nation.


As climate change threatens to intensify and exacerbate extreme weather events — such as flooding and even drought — the unease and desperation of residents and emergency responders in communities near these crumbling systems is growing.

“We all know that there’s a lot of economically disadvantaged communities that are built in natural disaster-prone areas,” Strudley said. “That’s just the very unfortunate way the planning and development process has worked over the past 100 plus years in the United States.”

Throughout Northern California, the Central Valley and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, there are more than 13,000 miles of levees designed to protect dry land from floods, deliver drinking water, and protect homes, businesses, and agriculture from flooding.

According to work by Farhid Vahedifard — a professor of civil engineering at the University of Mississippi — a high percentage were constructed by settlers in the mid- to late 19th century to protect agricultural lands from flooding.


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