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Before the disastrous flood, officials knew the Pajaro River levee could fail, but took no action.

Officials have known for decades that the Pajaro River levee that failed this weekend, inundating an entire immigrant town and trapping dozens of residents, was vulnerable, but they never prioritized repairs in part because they believed it made no financial sense to protect the low income area. , interviews and records show.

“In the early 1960s, it was widely recognized that levees probably weren’t adequate for the water that that system receives,” Edwin Townsley, deputy district engineer for project management for the Corps of Engineers, told The Times. US Army for the San Francisco region. on Sunday.

And despite having studied it off and on for years, in terms of “cost-benefit ratio,” it was never clarified, he said.

“It’s a low-income area. It’s mostly farmworkers that live in the town of Pájaro,” Townsley said. “So you basically get the construction costs of the Bay Area, but the value of the property is not as high.”

The levee was built in 1949 and, according to a 2021 Army Corps webpage system summary, “no longer provides the designed level of protection.”

Flooding has occurred five times since it was completed, including a rupture event in 1995 in which two people drowned and economic damage was estimated to have ranged from $50 million to $95 million. Floods occurred again in 1997 and in 1998 President Clinton issued a disaster declaration. More recently, there was a near flood event in 2017 and again this past January.

But three years ago, “as part of the overall environmental justice restoration of the US Army Corps of Engineers, OMB, Congress, all recognized that if you looked solely at cost-benefit ratios, you would not fund projects in areas that would normally they were lower -revenues,” Townsley said.

The Corps then initiated a study that resulted in a report showing that “there would be some value to life safety, even though the benefit-cost ratio of the project was close enough to unity for the costs to equal the benefits.” “, said.

And they are currently designing a system that they hoped to move to construction in the next two years, he said, funded by the Infrastructure Works Act and state money, guaranteed by a 2021 bill that ordered the Department of Water Resources to pay 100%. of the state’s cost to rebuild the Pajaro/Watsonville levee system.

“It’s tragic that we have this right before construction starts,” he said, referring to the breach and flooding.

“The state and federal governments have historically ignored low-income neighborhoods and communities,” said Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo. “The story of Pájaro is exactly that. There was a lack of commitment from our federal and state governments. Residents have never felt that they had that kind of support, knowing that the danger, the risk, has always been there.”

Farshid Vahedifard, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Mississippi State University, said communities living near levees are often underserved or economically disadvantaged.

City, local and state governments “have a history, you know, a long history of discrimination when it comes to levees. They are a good example of infrastructure equity issues that we have been dealing with for decades,” he said.

In a recent article, Vahedifard noted that inland flooding had caused 624 deaths in the US and $164 billion in damage “disproportionately affecting disadvantaged communities.”

Pajaro is in unincorporated Monterey County, and despite being in a different county than Watsonville and across the river, the two communities share a ZIP code. Pájaro does not have its own post office.

According to Alfredo Torres, a Watsonville resident who grew up in Pájaro, the smallest city in Monterey County is considered the backwater of the area.

“It doesn’t have the urban conveniences of Watsonville,” he said, and because it’s in an unincorporated area, public services like law enforcement are pretty minimal.

Watsonville’s population is close to 53,000; Pájaro’s is approximately 3,000.

On Saturday, most of the Pajaro evacuees at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds were primarily Spanish-speaking. Andres Garcia, a Pajaro resident, said many are migrant farm workers who work on nearby strawberry farms.

According to county officials, the state is trying to plug the gap, which has grown to 120 feet, with granite rock.

But that carries risks, Townsley said.

“This next wave (of weather) coming up is going to put extra pressure on the system, so it’s in this weird place where the gap actually reduces pressure on the Watsonville side,” he said. “Once again, the lowest income community now bears the brunt…”

“The last time there was a flood around here was 1995, and then there was talk of doing things” to fix the levee problem, said Glenn Church, a member of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors. The sigh. “The government sometimes moves a little slow.

“It would have been great if all of this had been done earlier,” Church said. “But I’m glad to see some permanent solutions are finally being put in place to deal with this, so we don’t have to deal with this every 10 to 20 years.”

Times Staff Writer Emily Alpert-Reyes contributed to this report.