March 16, 2023 - 9:00 pm
Before California officials spend another dime fighting global warming, they should patch up the state’s degraded infrastructure.
Last week, a levee on the Pajaro River failed in the middle of the night, flooding the town of Pajaro, a small low-income community in Monterey County. Many of its 1,700 residents are farmworkers. Sheriff’s deputies had to go door-to-door and tell residents to flee. The California National Guard and other first responders rescued at least 90 people.
The cause of the breach was an atmospheric river storm system that pounded the region with rain. But California’s political leadership also deserves blame. California officials have known for more than 50 years that the levee was vulnerable. This levee was previously breached in 1995. Two people died, and the economic damage topped $50 million. There was additional flooding in 1997 and 1998. The area almost flooded in 2017. This January, problems again plagued the river. Residents were evacuated for a week.
Even so, California officials didn’t repair the levee. They decided it wasn’t worth the expense, perhaps because the area is so poor. Never mind that it’s hard to build property values when heavy rain could wipe out a nearby levee. Or that water management is a core function of government.
The flooding is going to hit residents with a double whammy. The water damaged homes and belongings and swamped nearby strawberry and cabbage fields, likely ruining many of the crops. That means jobs will be hard to come by, even after the water recedes.
This disaster comes amid a backdrop of California Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state politicians who preen over efforts to reduce carbon emissions. They frame those efforts around the needs to confront “climate risks that endanger the most vulnerable among us,” as Gov. Newsom has put it. They want to be seen as champions of the poor and migrants. Yet they push policies that drive up costs for those of modest means while directing taxpayer money to green vanity projects that will do little to lower global temperatures.
These are costly efforts. Last year, in 2021, Gov. Newsom’s office bragged about spending $15 billion to “tackle the climate crisis and protect vulnerable communities.” Last year, California’s climate spending commitments increased to $54 billion. Just a tiny fraction of that could have prevented this flooding.
This disaster exposes Gov. Newsom’s hypocrisy and misplaced priorities. What the vulnerable community in Pajaro needed was a stronger levee — not the hope of a minuscule reduction in global temperatures a few decades from now.