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Winter storms exposed the unfairness of California’s flood protections. Are marginalized areas closing the gap?  

Floods driven by winter storms are nothing new in Monterey County, but the early March catastrophe that swelled the Pajaro and Salinas rivers and drowned farmworker communities exposed the extreme inequality built into flood-control systems.

Carmel Valley had seen enough Winter 1995 floods were the last straw for the middle class community of Carmel Valley, which worked successfully for improved stormwater management. Since then, less-fortunate areas have continued to be inundated.  Orville Myers/The Monterey Herald

By Felicity Barringer and Carol McKibben

Carol L. McKibben is a historian and lecturer at Stanford University. She has engaged in numerous community-based research projects on the Monterey Peninsula for thirty years. Her recent book, Salinas: A History of Race and Resilience in an Agricultural City was published in 2022 by the Stanford University Press.

The floods driven by winter storms are nothing new in Monterey County, but the early March catastrophe that swelled the Pajaro and Salinas rivers and drowned farmworker communities exposed the extreme inequality built into flood-control systems. 

For years, particularly after the major floods, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considered bolstering the Pajaro River levee, but Federal rules ensured the Corps couldn’t argue that the engineering and construction costs would be worth it

The immediate cause of the flood were the winter storms that struck the California coast, but the disaster that breached levees in towns like Pajaro was decades in the making. It was based on two decades of official neglect shaped by federally mandated cost-benefit analyses and the lack of community engagement that might have challenged their conclusions.

For years, particularly after the major floods, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considered bolstering the Pajaro River levee, which was originally built in 1949. Given the persistent low value of agricultural land and worker homes in farming communities like Pajaro, whose residents pick strawberries and artichokes for American tables, Federal rules ensured the Corps couldn’t argue that the engineering and construction costs would be worth it.

Some 30 miles to the south, in communities along the Carmel River, particularly in the Mission Fields neighborhood near the city of Carmel-by-the-Sea, the community’s economic resources and its residents’ activism produced a very different result. Both Mission Fields and Pajaro were flooded out in 1995.

In 2023, only Pajaro was.   

Scenes from a flooded Pajaro, California in March 2023. Houses were inundated and vehicles submerged when the Pajaro River burst over a crumbling levee overnight. Agence France-Presse via Getty Images

A little history is needed to understand this tale of two rivers. In 1995 and 1998, catastrophic flooding in Monterey County forced the evacuation of several communities, from the enclaves of Carmel and Carmel Valley through the farmland towns of Watsonville and Pajaro. Floods drenched many neighborhoods in the path of the waters of the Pajaro River — which forms the part of Monterey County’s northern border — and the lower Carmel River.  

It was terrifying when firefighters pounded on her front door the next morning and ordered Carol, her 10 and 13 year old children, plus their German shepherd and two cats, to evacuate immediately.

These floods also consumed, briefly in 1995, the lives of the co-author Carol McKibben’s family in Carmel Valley, a community in the unincorporated part of Monterey County. Like the city of Carmel-by-the-Sea itself, Carmel Valley is often pigeonholed as the acme of privileged living. It didn’t feel so privileged when the floods arrived and residents in and around Carmel escaped flood waters in their pajamas in the middle of the night. It was terrifying when firefighters pounded on her front door the next morning and ordered Carol, her 10 and 13 year old children, plus their German shepherd and two cats, to evacuate immediately.

Local news coverage after the flood in January 1995. Carmel Pine Cone

In the following days, as she collected herself and mourned her lost family keepsakes, she heard from friends in the nearby Mission Fields neighborhood just outside the boundary of Carmel-by-the-Sea. They were also grieving personal losses as their world had been swept up in Carmel River water that rose several feet in a matter of minutes.

Carmel Valley, an unincorporated area outside of Carmel, California. Eric Harmatz via Flickr

The Mission Fields neighborhood was established in the mid-20th century to house middle-class professionals like teachers, nurses, police officers and firefighters who found Carmel proper too expensive. In the ensuing five decades, Mission Fields has become home to the same mostly white, middle- and upper-class demographic as the rest of the area, however. Its residents are well-educated and some are well-versed in the workings of government. 

The 1995 floods ruined cars, floors, carpets, appliances, furniture, and memories in Mission Fields and around the county.

 

The flooding in 1995 devastated a number of home near the mouth of the Carmel River. (Monterey Herald archive) The final environmental review document for the Carmel River flood control project was released recently. The aim of the project is to prevent floods such as the one pictured above in 1995. (Monterey Herald archive) A man walks down Sycamore Street in the Mission Fields neighborhood of Carmel.  Photo: Orville Myers, 1/10/95
Sycamore Street in the Mission Fields neighborhood of Carmel in January 1995. Orville Myers/The Monterey Herald

Mission Fields residents actively fought to alleviate the danger presented by the Carmel River. They organized and got action from county leaders.

After joining the Carmel River flood task force established by then-Monterey County Supervisor Sam Karas in 1995, Mission Fields residents actively fought to alleviate the danger presented by the Carmel River. They organized and got action from county leaders. It was not easy, but their collective, persistent activism led to remedies that would be proven effective.

Larry Levine and Lance Monosoff are  Mission Fields residents who pursued projects to protect the neighborhood. They explained how a small existing local community district with authority to charge fees was expanded from nine to 220 homes along the river. Homeowners were assessed $222 annually. These funds, supplemented by state transit agency, paid to raise a river levee alongside the neighborhood, to add another levee nearby, and to create and armor a notch put into a third levee that would send floodwaters south into nearby fields.

When another deluge came in 1998, Levine said, excess water flowed into nearby fields and “there wasn’t flooding” in Mission Fields. He added, “The bottom line: getting things done in the public sphere definitely benefits from having [county] staff professionals working together with involved citizens. The county officials can get a lot done on their own, but need to be goosed a little bit. …Somebody has to push it, make it a priority, be a squeaky wheel.”

KBSW-TV, Monterey

Three years after the initial disaster, Mission Fields was more protected from the floods that again overwhelmed residents of Pajaro and Watsonville.

As a result, three years after the initial disaster, Mission Fields was more protected from the floods that again overwhelmed residents of Pajaro and Watsonville. The destruction when the levees from the Pajaro River burst once again left many residents there with nothing. They fled to shelters and lost homes to the floodwaters, as some collapsed and others were severely damaged. 

1995 was the last time there were strong similarities between the way the communities near the two overflowing rivers endured floods. By 2023, even though evacuation warnings were posted,  Mission Fields and other Carmel River neighborhoods were protected. Pajaro River neighborhoods weren’t.

When heavy rains turned to floods

Source: PRISM Climate Group, Oregon State University

Most people who live in the Pajaro flood zones work twelve-hour days and sometimes two or three jobs just to live in Monterey County, which, like the rest of California, is one of the most expensive places in the United States. Many are not citizens. They don’t have the same means  to demand the kind of government support that Mission Fields residents take for granted. Yet three years after the 1995 flood, more than 200 Pajaro residents did win a lawsuit finding Santa Cruz and Monterey counties responsible for their loss. Each county ended up paying about $22 million in damages.

Three years after the 1995 flood, more than 200 Pajaro residents did win a lawsuit finding Santa Cruz and Monterey counties responsible for their loss.

But even if there had been ongoing citizen pressure from Pajaro residents for increased flood protection, it would have made little difference.  The required benefit-cost calculation stood in the way. “Given a limited amount of money,” said Stu Townsley,  a deputy district engineer at the San Francisco office of the Corps, “the Office of Management [and Budget] had an unwritten rule that they would likely not fund any project that didn’t have a 2.5 or better benefit-to-cost ratio,” known in government as a BCR. 

As the environmental justice movement gained strength, however, louder voices demanded action to support communities such as Pajaro at risk for flooding as well as on the receiving end of environmental damage. By January 2021, a departing Trump administration official directed the Corps to look more closely at how to evaluate benefits. The Biden administration completely overhauled OMB’s calculation. In 2022 it decided that Army Corps projects must deliver 40 percent of the benefits to marginalized communities — which, Townsley said, “has pushed the corps to look at things considering environmental justice,” The final paragraph of this 2023 White House budget document for the Corps makes this clear.

“That opens up the door,” he added. “The Pajaro system, which has been studied for 40 years but had a BCR of 1, might now be feasible in the political context.” The Army Corps has committed to delivering $149 million for the project — 65 percent of the original estimate — with the state picking up the other 35 percent. But the commitments were based on a cost estimate that has now doubled; repair costs are now expected to exceed $500 million. The federal financial commitment is likely to increase significantly.

Construction on a variety of projects needed to strengthen the levee and build other supportive structures is scheduled to begin next year.

Construction on a variety of projects needed to strengthen the levee and build other supportive structures is scheduled to begin next year. That is a a welcome outcome for the communities of farmworkers, but happens too late to save the hundreds of residents of Pajaro from the recent floods.

Simon Salinas, who has served on both the Monterey County Board of Supervisors and in the California Assembly, asked, “Why did it take this long?” He added, “If we don’t fix it now, it’s going to happen again.”

This is what inequality looks like. This is what happens if environmental risks are mitigated one neighborhood at a time with wealthier neighborhoods at the head of the line.  

 

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Felicity Barringer

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A national environmental correspondent during the last decade of her 28 years at The New York Times, Felicity provided an in-depth look at the adoption of AB 32, California’s landmark climate-change bill after covering state’s carbon reduction policies. MORE »

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Rani Chor is the & the West editorial assistant for winter 2024. She has worked as the university news desk editor and public safety beat reporter for the Stanford Daily.

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