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A bill to speed up reconstruction of the Pajaro river levee heads to Newsom’s desk

Gov. Gavin Newsom and then-Assemblymember Robert Rivas (now speaker of the Aseembly), at a press conference in Pajaro on March 15. A
Jerimiah Oetting
Gov. Gavin Newsom and then-Assemblymember Robert Rivas (now Speaker of the Assembly), at a press conference in Pajaro on March 15. A bill written by Rivas, that would expedite the permitting process and speed up the levee rebuild, has passed the state legislature. It awaits the governor's signature.

The California State Legislature has passed a bill that could significantly speed up the long-awaited reconstruction of the Pajaro River levee — a project that has been talked about for nearly 60 years.

After the levee disastrously failed in March, flooding the town of Pajaro and forcing some 3,000 residents from their homes, a parade of politicians promised to move the reconstruction forward once and for all.

The levee system has failed multiple times since it was built in the 1940s. But despite congressional authorization in 1966 to replace it, funding has repeatedly taken a backseat to flood protection in wealthier areas. Last year, officials finally secured the funding to begin the $400 million project, but state permitting rules meant that it would still take as much as 12 years to complete.

The bill, sponsored by Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas who represents the region, exempts the project from some of those rules, and allows it to bypass review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that could have held it up for years. It also allows construction to begin next year instead of 2025, as originally planned. In all, the bill could shave as much as 5 years off of the original timeline, according to Mark Strudley, executive director of the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency.

The bill sailed through the California Assembly on a 70-0 vote late Thursday, after passing the Senate overwhelmingly a day earlier. It now heads to Gov. Newsom, who is expected to sign it into law.

While the project will ultimately provide 100-year flood protection for communities along the river, it still will not help in the immediate term. Repairs on the March breaches in the levee are ongoing and expected to be complete in time for this year’s rainy season. But the $20 million project will only restore the levee to where it was before this year’s storms.

Meanwhile, in Washington, a proposal to further streamline the reconstruction remains bottled up in congressional budget negotiations. Rep. Zoe Lofgren requested $200 million in federal funding to streamline the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ contracting to design and build the new levee system.

Scott Cohn is a nationally recognized journalist who has been based on the Central Coast since 2014. His work for KAZU is a return to his reporting roots. Scott began his career as a reporter and host for Wisconsin Public Radio. Contact him at
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