20 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY february 29-march 6, 2024 www.montereycountyweekly.com the Storm Assistance for Immigrants Project, providing cash aid for people who live or work in winter storm-impacted areas. About 12,600 people live in the floodplain. The population is largely Latinos or Mexican Indigenous, low-income, immigrants (many undocumented) and farmworkers. The Pajaro Valley population continues to grow, despite being prone to flooding. Even before the flood, local, state and federal officials knew the levee was desperately in need of work. The disaster put the pressure on to speed up efforts on a long-awaited project, and to bring more attention to the rural community’s needs. Speaker of the California State Assembly Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, contributed to related bills, including Senate Bill 496, co-authored with State Sen. John Laird, D-Santa Cruz. With this bill, the Department of Water Resources will pay 100 percent of the local and state cost-share for the project, or $210 million (normally, residents in the area would cover 10 percent). Most of the total price tag, $599 million, will be paid for federally. U.S. Senators Alex Padilla and Laphonza Butler and U.S. Representatives Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel Valley, and Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, have called for continued federal funding for the project. They previously secured $149 million through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. “The residents and businesses of Watsonville and Pajaro have been waiting for decades for urgent flood protection and during that time have suffered significant damage and loss of life due to flooding,” they wrote in the letter. Assembly Bill 876 speeds up the process of the levee’s construction and exempts it from certain state and local environmental laws and regulations. The $599 million levee reconstruction project that will provide 100-year flood protection will begin this summer at Salsipuedes Creek in Watsonville, an area that currently has no levees. “We’re in the final stages of design on the first segment of that project, which is called Reach 6,” Strudley says. Reach 6 is along the Salsipuedes Creek between East Lake Avenue and Green Valley Road. Reach 1, the levee segment that’s under Highway 1, won’t be part of the project. The section that will protect Pajaro is Reach 4, which is scheduled in the third phase of the project. Strudley estimates construction could start in three to four years. Once Reach 4 is completed, it will provide 100-year flood protection for the town of Pajaro. While the design for Reach 6 is done, Strudley says the design for other project segments has not yet begun, and “as such, there may be opportunities in other project reaches to make adjustments to specific project features that lower costs and increase flood protection.” “All three of those places where the levee broke last year, were places where the Army Corps in the past decided not to deliver a new project because of the benefit-cost ratio,” Strudley says. “I think that was eye-opening to the Corps.” Strudley hopes the other two areas where the levee broke will be repaired in the future through a different project. There are two different perspectives on Pajaro’s recovery efforts. Officials say projects in the area are moving; some residents and business owners feel frustrated and neglected with the pace, noting the county’s financial assistance hasn’t rolled out yet. Chavez is frustrated by what he views as a lack of attention on Pajaro. “This is California. We do pay our taxes, we do pay our dues and it’s nice to be treated like other places get treated,” Chavez says. “I’m sure that if this would have happened in an area like Monterey, Carmel, things would have been different. It really is frustrating.” The Pajaro Branch Library, located in an historic Queen Anne-style house, and Pajaro Middle School both remain closed. Every Friday, the Bookmobile, a library on wheels, goes to Pajaro Park. Students attending Hall and Ohlone elementary schools stay there for sixth grade, while PMS students attend Lakeview Middle School in Watsonville. PMS has flooded twice in the past 30 years. Repairs on the 2023 damage started this month. Crews will paint the school, replace the electrical system and construct new floors in classrooms, the gym and the library. The district will also upgrade the boys’ locker rooms, and hopes to build a wellness center in the future. “It’ll look brand new inside and out,” says Murry Schekman, interim superintendent of Pajaro Valley Unified School District. The $4.6 million project was awarded to Castroville-based Ausonio, Inc., and while the district is anticipating moving $2 million from its general fund to cover the cost, Schekman is hopeful the state would subsidize it. On Dec. 5, he spoke up during the Board of Supervisors meeting to ask them to keep a proposed $2 million line item for PMS for a new turf field. When school officials asked students what they wanted at PMS, “nine out of 10 kids will say ‘give us a new field,’” Schekman says. But they did not get the money amid other demands. Instead, the district has set aside $500,000 for the field and in January, launched a campaign to raise the other $1.5 million it needs by August. Cancino says the resource center Community Bridges opened in Pajaro will remain open for at least another year. Cancino adds the County should have a space to increase engagement and connection between Pajaro residents and county government without having to travel to Salinas or Monterey. “The community also needs a place of consistent resources, of consistent connection to coordinating between two counties, have consistent engagement and opportunities for people to have a trusted place to go to for different social service needs,” Cancino points out. Since the flood, business owners in Pajaro meet every Wednesday at Casa de la Cultura to share updates and information about the Pajaro recovery plan, especially with business owners who are Spanish speakers. “I’m expecting something similar to a chamber of commerce forming out of this community,” says County Supervisor Glenn Church, who represents Pajaro. Residents and business owners want better lighting, cleaner streets and sidewalks and regular levee maintenance and upgrades to prevent future floods. Church also hopes the county will have a plan in place in the future to act promptly in case another flood occurs—and to discuss future infrastructure projects in the area. Church points out that despite the recovery process moving slower than residents would like, the Pajaro Disaster Assistance Program is now in motion. “What’s going on in Pajaro is now moved out to be a priority and there are a lot of good things that are going to be coming about in the next few years,” Church says. Chavez says he wants Pajaro to be on the map for local officials. Contreras says her family will never forget the flood. The evacuation orders were issued on March 10, the day her eldest son Adrian Rocha turned 18, and the town reopened on March 23, when her daughter Adilene turned 16. She says her son looks at the river level every time he walks over the bridge and worries it will happen again. “We all suffer one way or another,” Contreras says. “We don’t want to go through that again.” Cayetano Street, Florence Avenue and Jonathan Street join together and back up against agricultural fields. The area flooded in March 2023, causing damage to nearby homes as well as the farm. “I’m sure that if this would have happened in an area like Monterey, Carmel, things would have been different. It really is frustrating.” daniel dreifuss