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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

California levee failures mount as storms continue relentless drive


Floodwaters in Watsonville, Calif., March 14, 2023. Pajaro is the latest community to suffer from a levee break in California.

By Tim Arango and Shawn Hubler


It began as a trickle, seeping through a 74-year-old earthen levee in Northern California, dribs and drabs of the Pajaro River, swollen with rain yet again on Friday night. Then pools bubbled up on beyond the levee walls, spreading toward darkened fields of strawberries and lettuce. Four miles downstream, the farmworker community of Pajaro slept.


Within half an hour, according to Mark Strudley, the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency’s executive director, sandbag crews were swarming the scene in “full flood fight.” But in the latest example of how California’s vast and aging infrastructure is being tested by this year’s onslaught of extreme winter weather, the crews could not keep up.


As they backed away, the river burst with a mighty roar through the worn-down levee, flooding freeways and farms, submerging the entire town of Pajaro and forcing thousands of residents in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties to flee.


“I have to start from zero,” Antonio Arroyo, a 58-year-old farmworker, said Tuesday as he sat in an evacuation center at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds with about 300 displaced residents from the same community, known for harvesting strawberries. He had been sleeping in a Honda minivan when firefighters rescued him from the rising floodwaters in Pajaro; the donated red sneakers, bluejeans, sweater and plaid shirt he was wearing were “all I have,” he said.


As a fresh atmospheric river ravaged California on Tuesday, causing high winds and flooding from Southern California to the Oregon border, water experts warned that the recent storms could be just a prelude to an even more challenging spring.


Already, the landscape is beyond saturated after a winter that has set or approached records for precipitation. By Tuesday afternoon, heavy rain reached the Los Angeles Basin, where officials warned residents to avoid driving through flooded roadways and fire authorities said they rescued eight people and eight dogs from the San Gabriel River in Azusa late Monday.


In the Bay Area and Central Coast, strong winds downed power lines and tall trees. More than 350,000 utility customers were without power at one point Tuesday, most of them customers of Pacific Gas and Electric in hard-hit Northern California, according to Poweroutage.us, which tracks blackouts. Gusts of up to 74 mph were recorded at San Francisco International Airport, where operations were paused briefly after the FAA issued a ground stop.


Water from the Pajaro River breached a levee on Tuesday, forcing the closure of a portion of Highway 1 until the safety of bridges could be assessed.


More than 1,500 dams and some 14,000 miles of levees help control California’s waterways, according to federal statistics. And this year’s storms are capping the driest three years on record, noted Gary Lippner, deputy director of dam safety and flood management with the state’s Department of Water Resources.


“California,” he said, “has experienced true climate whiplash this year.”


Statewide, the winter storms have stressed the state’s infrastructure since January, particularly in low-lying, inland areas crisscrossed by rivers. Along the Cosumnes River near Sacramento, where more than a dozen levee breaches flooded roads and inundated homes during storms around New Year’s Day, communities are still recovering.


To the north of the state Capitol, the authorities who maintain the watershed that encompasses the Sacramento International Airport said that when one of their pumps exploded this year during a powerful storm system, they discovered that their equipment was so old that the manufacturer no longer carried the parts they needed to fix it.


”We managed to get it back online with a $600 part we found on eBay,” said Kevin L. King, the general manager of Reclamation District No. 1000, an agency formed to maintain levees and protect acreage from flooding. “We were within 12 to 24 hours of telling the airport to reroute flights because there would have been water flooding the runways.”


Strudley said that federal, state and local officials had talked since the 1960s about the need to shore up the water infrastructure around the Pajaro River, but the property values in the area were so low that they did not meet the threshold for repair under the cost-benefit formula that the federal government and the Army Corps of Engineers were using.


That approach, which systemically disadvantaged poorer communities, has begun to change, he said. A major project to upgrade and strengthen the local levees at an estimated cost of more than $500 million was underway when the storm hit, and the flood has prompted local officials to begin talks with the federal government about expediting its planned 2025 groundbreaking, Strudley said.


Even so, he added, the project is expected to take eight to 10 years.


In Watsonville, across the river from their community of Pajaro, displaced farmworkers said it was unclear how long they could hold out with both their homes and the fields they depend on for paychecks underwater. Some said they had been living in their cars for days, not knowing where to go.


The working-class agricultural region is tucked between the beaches of Santa Cruz that are popular with surfers, and the wealthy Monterey Peninsula known for its world-class Pebble Beach Golf Links. Often cloaked in fog near the coastline of the Pacific Ocean, workers in the Pajaro Valley pick strawberries and harvest lettuce and artichokes savored by the rest of the nation.


Marina Hernandez, 31, said she received a knock on the door just after midnight Saturday from a county worker saying her family had an hour to evacuate. She called her husband, who was working an overnight shift about 20 miles away at a garlic packing plant in Gilroy, and then quickly collected important documents, like birth certificates and Social Security cards.


But she said county officials did not tell her where to find shelter, so she and her family were living for a few days in their pickup truck. “All they said was: ‘Get out! Get out!’ But they didn’t tell us where to go. Nothing.”


Finally, after being sent away from the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds because the evacuation center was over capacity, she found her way Tuesday afternoon to a small shelter set up in the gymnasium of a veterans hall in Watsonville.


Sitting on a cot with her 14-month-old daughter as her 5-year-old son lay playing with his phone on another cot, Hernandez said she was sad and frustrated and had no idea the condition of her home.


Weeks might pass, she said, before she and her family could go back. Until then, she said, “I’m not able to do anything.”


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