A long-planned effort to protect Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park from the flood-prone San Francisquito Creek suffered a potentially severe setback last week, when the Regional Water Quality Control Board decided after a year of negotiations to reject the permit application for the project.
At the same time, the water board declined to give Palo Alto its permission for the massive renovation of the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course, a project that was sparked by the flood-control effort before greatly expanding in scope and taking on a life of its own. Despite arguments from Palo Alto officials to the contrary, the water board determined that there is "significant overlap" between the two projects and that approving the golf course renovation would limit design changes to the flood-control project, including creation of a bypass channel along the golf course.
The water board issued its decisions in two letters on Feb. 27 and Feb. 28. The first letter, addressed to the creek authority, stated that the board has "insufficient information on which to issue water-quality certification" and that the project is "hereby denied without prejudice." The agency determined that the creek authority did not explore enough alternatives for its flood-control project, which targets the particularly vulnerable sections of East Palo Alto and Palo Alto downstream of the creek. In February 1998, about 1,700 properties in these areas were damaged in the largest flood on record. The creek authority, which includes on its board of directors officials from Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park, has been working ever since to protect the region from the next big one.
The second letter, addressed to Palo Alto officials, informs them that the golf course renovation will not be approved because of unresolved issues with the flood-control project.
"The Water Board has significant concerns with the SFCJPA's current design for the flood control project, and won't be able to permit the SFCJPA's flood control project as currently proposed," wrote Shin-Roei Lee, chief of the water board's Watershed Division. "Approving the the current design proposal for the Golf Course Project would have the unfortunate effect of foreclosing potential options for improving the SFCJPA's flood control design."
Both efforts now face potentially significant delays while officials from the San Francisquito Joint Powers Authority and the city look for ways to meet the water board's concerns. For Palo Alto, which had hoped to break ground on the golf course renovation this spring, the delay could prove particularly expensive. Just before the City Council voted to approve the $9.4 million golf-course project, staff warned that a year delay could cost the city $1 million in foregone revenue. The bureaucratic delay makes this possibility increasingly likely.
In rejecting the creek authority's application for the flood-control parcel, the water board voiced concerns about the Faber Tract, a marshy stretch that's home to endangered species such as the clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse. The water board's fear is that by reconstructing levees and widening an existing channel to accommodate more water flow, the creek authority may further imperil these species by making it harder for them to find shelter during floods. A future application, the water board determined, should include alternatives that would "minimize any increases in the frequency of inundation of marsh and upland refugia vegetation within the Faber Tract and avoid any increases in the quantity or velocity of flows into the Faber Tract marsh relative to the existing (pre-Caltrans Highway 101 culvert installation) conditions." The Caltrans project is proceeding on a separate track with the same goal to improve flood protection in a particularly vulnerable area.
The water board recommended an alternative that would create a bypass channel to divert flow from the creek to the "ball fields near the upstream end of the proposed flood wall, continue on down along the southern boundary of the golf course, and discharge to the tidal marsh at the southern end of the airport runway."
The letter to the creek authority also cited a statutory requirement that a decision be reached within a year, a deadline that will pass on March 12. It also asks the creek authority to consider raising the levee on the East Palo Alto side of the creek to provide more protection to the community. It also requested a design alternatives with "conveyance features" that split flows and reduce water velocities.
"We recognize the significance of the Project to the community and the JPA's urgency in securing all permits for the Project and proceeding to construction," the water board's Executive Officer Bruce Wolfe wrote in the letter. "This letter is intended to provide guidance to the JPA on how best to move forward to secure permits from the Regional Water Board and other regulatory agencies. Further, the Regional Water Board is committed to working with the JPA on coordinating and streamlining the permitting process."
Pat Burt, a Palo Alto councilman who serves on the creek authority board, called the letters from the water board "disconcerting." He noted that the project includes creating 15 acres of wetlands.
"We have a project that is beneficial to the water quality in the net and they want to fundamentally change it as we are ready to start construction in ways that aren't feasible," Burt said.
Burt noted that many of the issues that the water board has brought up in its rejection letter have already been thoroughly vetted during the Environmental Impact Report process and through engineering designs. The bypass option, for instance, has already been explored and rejected. So has the conveyance system, which Burt said engineers considered eight years ago. And the levee on the East Palo Alto side was intentionally designed slightly lower than the one on the Palo Alto side because engineers believed the levee on the Palo Alto side would settle within the next few years. Burt noted that East Palo Alto, which is a member of the creek authority, was a full participant in coming up with a design and a strong supporter of the project.
"This is a very large social justice issue for East Palo Alto," Burt told the Weekly. "There is not just a risk of property damage but also a significant risk to life in East Palo Alto. And we have been able to put together a very good plan and come up with funding that can address that. We're ready to start construction and we're now seeing a bunch of roadblocks."
Burt also noted that the water board's proposal to use airport land for the flood-control project has already been explored by the city attorney's office. It fizzled for several reasons. For one, the city doesn't yet fully own the airport (it is in the process of taking it over from Santa Clara County). In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration wouldn't allow this use of airport land, he said.
Burt said Palo Alto City Manager James Keene discussed the water board's concerns with Wolfe on Monday. City and creek authority staff plan to have more discussions with the water board in the coming days.
"We certainly hope that the issues that they perceive to be problems are ones we can address promptly, because we think they're things that are readily answerable," he said.
Delays could prove particularly costly for Palo Alto. Because new design alternatives may impact the golf course (it includes building a levee on the course and replacing turf with natural baylands habitat), the water board concluded that the projects should not be considered separately, as both city and creek authority officials had urged. Permitting the golf course project as proposed, the water board's letter to the city stated "would constrain the development of an acceptable flood control project."
"The Water Board continues to believe that the SFCJPA project and the Golf Course Project are not fully independent projects, since components of the two projects physically overlap and the extent of the necessary overlap has not been resolved," Lee wrote. "Therefore, we cannot issue permits for the Golf Course Project until an acceptable footprint of the SFCJPA Flood Control Project has been developed."
The creek authority has been pursuing a permit from the water board for a year now, a process that has already involved design changes aimed at protecting creek habitat, including new marsh mounds that provide refuge space to marsh species. In January, creek authority's Executive Director Len Materman told the Parks and Recreation Commission that the water board is using the permitting process "as an avenue for them to acquire commitments by the City of Palo Alto and other cities on topics unrelated to the creek project."
"I can't estimate when we'd get our permit because we're in an environment where demands on the project are unrelated to the application and the physical nature of the design," Materman said at the Jan. 21 meeting. "Some of them are justifiable and some are perplexing."