Golis: As always, the California story returns to water

The powers-that-be decided they couldn’t get around to protecting a small Central Coast town from flooding.|

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

PAJARO

The powers-that-be decided they couldn’t get around to protecting this small Central Coast town from flooding. Yes, 3,500 people live here, but most are low-income farmworkers who don’t have much. One government official said a cost-benefit analysis determined it wasn’t the best use of money to strengthen an old levee to protect the people of Pajaro.

On a road trip, we came here to see for ourselves what happens when government decides some people are more important than others. And we came to see what happens when a levee fails and a town fills with water.

Pete Golis
Pete Golis

Along the way, we learned that California needs to invest more time and money in protecting communities from flooding, especially when climate change is causing more extreme winter weather. If some residents think it is unfair to have to manage both drought and deluge, well, too bad.

Even after a month of cleanup, the aftermath of flooding in Pajaro is dispiriting to see. In what was already a hardscrabble town, the streets are covered with sediment and still littered with some of the detritus left behind when the water receded. Stacks of garbage and rows of garbage cans wait to be collected. Sandbags are strewn here and there, testimonies to an effort that was too little and too late.

On the day we were there, hundreds of people lined up at the Catholic church to receive aid. On Salinas Road, the town’s main street, a local school has been transformed into an emergency center where people can find potable water, a shower, bathrooms, a mobile laundry and guidance to other resources. (Until last week, officials warned that the water from the local water system wasn’t safe to drink.)

Some streets are still closed as cleanup efforts continue a month after a levee break flooded the town of Pajaro. (PETE GOLIS / The Press Democrat)
Some streets are still closed as cleanup efforts continue a month after a levee break flooded the town of Pajaro. (PETE GOLIS / The Press Democrat)

In Pajaro, photos and videos show block after block of houses inundated with water and mud, cars stuck in water above the axles and piles of soggy sheet rock and damaged furnishings.

Drive a couple of hundred yards over the Pajaro River bridge to Watsonville, and you arrive in a different world. The levee on the Santa Cruz County side, the Watsonville side of the river, held firm, while the levee on the Monterey County side failed.

Visitors may wonder: How could this happen in the same county that’s home to such fancy communities as Monterey, Carmel, Pebble Beach and Carmel Valley?

The San Jose Mercury News reported that in the past three years, Santa Cruz County spent five times as much money on levee repairs on the Watsonville side of the river as Monterey County spent on the Pajaro side. On the Monterey County side, the levee failed even though the river was 3 feet below flood stage.

Local officials refused to speculate about whether the disparity in investments contributed to the disaster, but they did note that a major overhaul of the entire levee system is budgeted in the year 2025.

Which would be two years too late for the residents of Pajaro.

A UC Irvine study found that low-income communities are often overlooked when flood control projects are being planned. A Public Policy Institute of California review found that flood projects often become “fiscal orphans” when government is setting priorities.

On our latest road trip, we also visited Corcoran, the San Joaquin Valley town that hasn’t flooded, but where residents worry that it will.

Owing to record rainfall, Tulare Lake, once the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi River, is coming back to life. It is said that Tulare Lake in the 19th century was four times larger in area than Lake Tahoe.

Then local farmers arranged to build dams and canals to divert the tributaries that fed the lake. In doing so, they were able to reclaim the lake bottom for farmland — first cotton, later almond and pistachio orchards.

South of Corcoran, Sixth Street and the adjacent farms have been inundated by the advancing Tulare Lake. Tens of thousands of acres are already under water.
South of Corcoran, Sixth Street and the adjacent farms have been inundated by the advancing Tulare Lake. Tens of thousands of acres are already under water.

Now tens of thousands of acres of farmland are flooded, roads to the south and west of Corcoran are closed by high water, and residents fear there is more to come.

On the day we arrived, Corcoran looked like any small town where people were going about their business. “What else are you going to do,” said one local resident. The temperature was in the 70s, shirt sleeve weather that might seem welcome after so much rain.

But residents fear warm temperatures will accelerate melting of a record snowpack in the Sierra, refilling Tulare Lake until the water reaches into the city itself. Corcoran, after all, was built where the lake used to be.

And so local government is rushing to raise the levee that protects Corcoran, a levee that has been sinking, along with the surrounding land, because of the groundwater overdrafts that have become a feature of Central Valley farming.

As if Corcoran residents weren’t already worried about flooding, last week brought a Los Angeles Times report that said the risks from a supersized snowpack could last into the fall and beyond. A manager for the state Department of Water Resources said residents should be prepared for any eventuality. “All the flooding we’re seeing right now is just a taste of what is likely to come,” UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain told the Times.

If you count the folks at two state prisons, more than 22,000 people live in Corcoran. The logistics of moving thousands of prisoners out of a flood zone must keep corrections officials up at night.

In Pajaro, the people in charge didn’t get around to repairing the levee that protected low-income people until it was too late.

In Corcoran, people decided that they could control nature with dams, canals and diversions. (Central Valley landowners continue to post signs blaming their problems on government’s reluctance to build more dams.)

The winter storms that produced flooding in parts of California also produced a “super bloom” of wildflowers, like these in the Carrizo Plain. (PETE GOLIS / The Press Democrat)
The winter storms that produced flooding in parts of California also produced a “super bloom” of wildflowers, like these in the Carrizo Plain. (PETE GOLIS / The Press Democrat)

In all its natural diversity, California is especially lovely right now. The golden hills of late summer have given way to textures of green, interspersed with vivid patchworks of colors.

Yes, it is wildflower season.

On the road, we stopped at the Carrizo Plain, the remote valley between Bakersfield and San Luis Obispo, a location celebrated for its annual explosion of wildflowers. In this year’s super-bloom, the valley and the surrounding hillsides are awash in purples and blues, oranges and yellows.

Such beauty should make us want to be respectful of nature wherever and whenever we can. But, sometimes, we forget.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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