The Pajaro River Federal Flood Control Project was built in 1949 by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and is maintained jointly by
The Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project (Project) is a multi-benefit project that will reduce flood risk to the City of Watsonville, the Town of Pajaro, and surrounding residential and agricultural land.
The existing and proposed levee project protects the economically disadvantaged City of Watsonville in Santa Cruz County and Town of Pajaro in Monterey County, where per capita income is less than half the state and national average. The Project also impacts some of the most productive farmland in the world; agriculture is a $750 million to $1 billion per year industry in the Pajaro Valley. The Watsonville-Salinas agricultural region produces twice as many strawberries as any other area in California, and California produces nearly 80% of the nation’s strawberries. Strawberries are California’s 4th highest-grossing agricultural commodity, producing $3.1 billion in annual revenue.
The Project plans to construct over 10 miles of setback levee and re-establish over 110 acres of historical floodplain creating significant habitat enhancement and groundwater recharge opportunities. The Project seeks to strike a balance between public health and safety, protecting the environment, and supporting the local economy.
Since construction of the levee system in 1949, there have been several major floods on the Pajaro River and its tributaries, including overtopping events in 1955 and 1958. A 1963 report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concluded that the levee system was “inadequate,” and Congress authorized reconstruction of the Pajaro River levee system in 1966 through Section 203 of the Flood Control Act of 1966 (Public Law 89-789, 80 Stat. 1421). The Army Corps and local community failed to come to an agreement on how to provide additional flood risk reduction in the late 1970s.
While the project languished in a protracted planning phase, additional major flooding occurred in 1995 and 1998 that resulted in significant inundation and damage caused by overtopping or breaching of the levees, including loss of life. Floods in 1995 caused more than $95 million in damage and two people lost their lives, with additional damage in 1997 and 1998 and displacement of hundreds of residents. Levels of flood protection along the Pajaro River system are among the lowest of any federal flood control project in California.
Recent (2016) Corps analysis shows the levees provide only 5-year protection along the Pajaro River and 7-year protection along two Pajaro tributaries. Poor levee strength further reduces this expected performance. Levees nearly broke again in the federally declared storm disasters of January-February 2017, and a 1600-foot-long seepage berm was needed to buttress the outboard levee flank when numerous observations of seepage and boils were made.
Despite the project’s long history, several key milestones have been reached in the past few years.