In summary

The infrastructure problems facing California have been exposed this month as Silicon Valley’s economy, the state’s transit future and the Central Valley’s floodplains faced various threats. The speed at which the state and others responded has been revealing.

Guest Commentary written by

José Vadi

José Vadi

José Vadi is the author of “Inter State: Essays From California” and “Chipped,” a forthcoming nonfiction collection on skateboarding. His work has appeared in the Paris Review, The Atlantic, PBS NewsHour, the San Francisco Chronicle, Free Skate Magazine, Alta Journal and the Yale Review.

California has consistently responded to threats to our infrastructure, seasonally now with the increased impacts of climate change. Yet the stratification of our priorities building infrastructure was exposed in the wake of the floods that struck Pajaro Valley between Santa Cruz and Salinas. 

Much of this past month exposed the infrastructure problems glaringly facing the state of California: Its past, present and future relationship laid bare by the Pajaro Valley floods, the Silicon Valley bank failure, and the prolonged, over-budget high-speed rail project in the Central Valley. 

California experiences nearly every type of emergency a year, seasonally switching our concerns like the weather was a traffic jam commute. But the progressive stereotype of California is sullied in times of emergency by our judgment through inconsistent approaches to aid and response. The victims are frequently the poor and undocumented, yet the major players of Silicon Valley and its network of wealth are priority protected. 

The Silicon Valley Bank crisis started Wednesday, March 8, with a massive selloff and bank-run by anti-regulation, free market shareholders who later pleaded for urgent government aid and takeover intervention. By Sunday, the Biden administration had announced SVB investors’ money would be available by the start of the next workweek. Less than a week and a key component of the infrastructure of Silicon Valley was saved.

More funds are also being requested by the California High-Speed Rail Authority, whose recent report estimated that the new price tag for the initial Central Valley portion would cost $35 billion, up from its initial $22.8 billion estimate. Meanwhile, the official ridership projections had dropped by 25%. Republicans are already calling for dismantling what’s been constructed of the high-speed rail before most Californians have even seen it. 

All of these issues surrounding the state’s economic, transit and safety infrastructure smacked capital leaders in the face this month. Pajaro is an unincorporated community devoid of much of the infrastructures of their Monterey neighbors. Though it was recognized as early as the 1960s that Pajaro’s levees, built in the late 1940s, were “not adequate” for the water system it holds, Monterey County never invested in repairs because doing so for a low-income community never benefited their balance sheet. Multiple floods have tormented the valley since, with this year’s the most brutal example.

The tests will continue with more rain in the forecast and the region still recovering from January storms. That month, more than 15,000 acres of farmland in Monterey County flooded with over $330 million in damages, according to the Monterey County Farm Bureau, which works with farmers.   

“Other than stating that this week’s flooding damages are more extensive than January’s, we do not yet have any estimates on acres or monetary damages,” bureau director Norm Groot recently told the San Francisco Chronicle .

How will this impact the need to have warming centers and relief assistance available for migrant and rural communities impacted by the storms, living in conditions akin to those exposed by the Half Moon Bay shootings? In Tulare County, a levee allegedly broken by rogue landowners spurred outrage from residents of Allensworth, the first town in California founded by Black Americans, at risk of being inundated with floodwater. As the small community north of Bakersfield scrambled to build makeshift barriers, Allensworth resident Kayode Kadera told the Los Angeles Times the state “wouldn’t allow this water to come into a white town.”

The nearby town of Corcoran’s levees are currently under armed patrol. Undocumented communities are ineligible for much of the federal emergency aid needed now and the past three years of the pandemic, with nonprofits acting as a de facto fiscal sponsor between the government and its hidden workforce. 

If conservatives want to shut down high-speed rail and progressives still want to meet housing needs that combat climate change, maybe we turn the train lines currently under construction into housing: an elevated community for previously unhoused or lower-income Californians unable to otherwise stay in the state.

It seems we need that ridiculous and large-scale of a solution right now that the hypothetical warrants some consideration. 

We’re behind on high-speed rail, and decades behind on much more accessible and doable technologies as a levee for a town’s proper water system. And we see the economic sway Silicon Valley has on the state and federal level. But like the counties that tolerate the open problems of their unincorporated neighbors, the question for the state is prioritizing those infrastructural plans that recognize innovation and ambition, like high-speed rail, and the ability to withstand ever-violent storms and longer California winters in the state’s agricultural hubs.

Will we invest in communities who, through their blood, sweat and labor, give industries billions in profits? Will we provide them basic public services in 2023? Just beyond Silicon Valley are the very real needs of towns like Pajaro, towns that level up to a massive ag industry.

Indeed, who will win the race between the effects of climate change on California and the state’s willingness to build support for the most vulnerable? This month, we were reminded the cost of losing.

more commentary from José Vadi

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