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California lawmakers tell Army Corps of Engineers to speed up Pajaro levee repairs

Susanne Rust, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

LOS ANGELES — It took a major disaster and the prolonged displacement of hundreds of farmworkers, but the small Monterey County community of Pajaro is finally getting the help and attention of federal, state and local lawmakers its residents have sought for decades.

On Tuesday, California lawmakers sent a letter to Michael Connor, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, urging him to speed construction on a levee that failed earlier this month, flooding the small town, and to provide immediate emergency relief funds to shore up the damaged infrastructure.

In addition, Gov. Gavin Newsom requested a presidential major disaster declaration that, if approved, could bring support and relief to the more than 2,000 residents who had to evacuate as the Pajaro River poured onto their streets and into their homes.

"[W]e ask that you take immediate steps to provide emergency relief to the towns of Pajaro and Watsonville and to accelerate construction of the federally authorized levee project," wrote Democratic Sens. Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein, along with Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Jimmy Panetta.

In an interview Wednesday, Padilla said there are many communities throughout the state and nation that sit at this interface of natural disaster, economic disadvantage and crumbling infrastructure.

What happened in Pajaro was "surprising but not shocking," and it is this kind of inequity that spurred him into public service, where he could try to make change — "so that disadvantaged communities, more broadly throughout California and throughout the country, aren't continuously left out," he said.

 

For decades, state and federal officials had known the levee in Pajaro was inadequate. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built the levee in 1949, had rejected plans to rebuild it because, as one official told The Times, it never penciled out: "It's a low-income area. It's largely farmworkers. ... Therefore, you get basically Bay Area construction costs but the value of property isn't all that high."

In 2021, just days before leaving office, R.D. James, President Donald Trump's assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works — a political appointment —penned a memo directing the corps to expand the criteria for project consideration by giving equal consideration to "economic, environmental and social categories."

The directive enabled the corps to go beyond economic justifications and use these other categories when deciding where to allocate money and effort, said Stu Townsley, the Army Corps of Engineers' deputy district engineer for project management for the San Francisco region.

Last fall, after decades of inaction, the corps, along with state and local agencies, was finally able to secure the roughly $400 million required to rebuild the levee. Construction was targeted to begin in 2025.

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