As flood waters rise in California, so does the risk of more levee failures

Floodwaters surround homes and vehicles in Monterey County, Calif.
Floodwaters surround homes and vehicles in the community of Pajaro in Monterey County on Monday.
(Noah Berger / Associated Press)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, March 15.

On Friday night, as another in a months-long parade of atmospheric rivers pummeled Northern and Central California, a levee meant to contain rising waters from the Pajaro River broke and flooded the small town of Pajaro.

Hundreds of residents were forced to leave their homes. A second levee breach was reported Monday. Work is underway to plug the gaps as another storm system bears down on the region — and even more rain is expected next week.


The river is the dividing line between Santa Cruz County to the north and Monterey County to the south, and the town of Pajaro sits on the southern side of the river.

The vast majority of Pajaro’s residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to the most recent U.S. Census data, which also shows nearly a fifth of people there live in poverty.

As my colleagues Susanne Rust and Ian James reported this week, the devastation in Pajaro was not some unavoidable act of nature, but the result of what happens when aging, inadequate flood controls are neglected and unfixed.

“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,” they wrote.

Those deaths occurred in 1995 in a flood that caused an estimated $95 million in damage to the community.

“We feel abandoned sometimes,” Pajaro resident Karla Loreto told Times reporters this week. “Ever since I moved here, I’ve always heard about the 1995 flooding and this view that this part of town is so bad and extremely poor.”


Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo has called on the state to provide aid for Pajaro’s undocumented residents, many of them farmworkers, saying they won’t qualify for federal aid.

“These are our friends, our neighbors, these are people that we really care about, and we know that they’re going to go through some tremendous hardship over the next several months,” he told The Times.

Water management experts told Rust and James that “similar weaknesses” are impacting levees across the Golden State and elsewhere in the U.S.

A 2011 state study of Northern California’s levee system listed more than half of the levees as “high hazard” — meaning they were at elevated risk of failing due to floods or earthquakes. In the years since that study, California’s megadrought has further weakened levees by drying out the soil around them, an engineering expert told the reporters.

“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,” they wrote.

And the risks extend to Southern California, one policy expert explained.

Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, pointed to “a long legacy of very bad flood management and land use choices” throughout the L.A. Basin, where the chance of major flooding is increasing.


“That is an equation for high risk because eventually a flood will come and the economic costs will be immense,” he told The Times.

An independent water researcher and advocate said that what happened to Pajaro’s residents indicates a system of neglect in how government prioritizes its more vulnerable communities.

“You look at where to invest money to protect lives,” she told Rust and Jame. “And we’re not doing that.”

You can read their full story here.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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Today’s California landmark is from Gregory Kubelek of Santa Rosa: the “visually and historically significant” Palisades mountains in Napa County.

A hiker and dog look up at rocks jutting out of a green mountain.
Marcia Kreutzmann and Abigail the dog look up at The Palisades in Napa County in 2005.
(Courtesy Gregory Kubelek)

Gregory writes:

The cliffs have the look of an ancient fortress from the valley below. The district was the site of a number quicksilver mines in the 19th century. Robert Louis Stevenson spent two months in these mountains in 1880 and wrote about it in “The Silverado Squatters.”

What are California’s essential landmarks? Fill out this form to send us your photos of a special spot in California — natural or human-made. Tell us why it’s interesting and what makes it a symbol of life in the Golden State. Please be sure to include only photos taken directly by you. Your submission could be featured in a future edition of the newsletter.

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