News

Residents near volatile creek make a plea for flood control

Dozens of speakers from East Palo Alto, Palo Alto and Menlo Park urge regional water board to approve long-planned project around San Francisquito Creek

It's been more than 16 years since a flood swept through the homes of Spencenia Sims and her neighbors in East Palo Alto, and the day rarely strays far from their minds come winter time.

After the flood in February 1998, Sims's house was one of about 1,700 in East Palo Alto, Palo Alto and Menlo Park to suffer water damage after San Francisquito Creek overflowed in the largest ever recorded spill. She was displaced for three months. In December 2012, a smaller flood forced her out of her home for the night.

Sims was one of more than 60 residents from the three cities who brought their passionate, frustrated and at times angry pleas on Wednesday to a meeting of a state agency that some have blamed for standing in the way of an urgently needed solution. The San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, which includes elected officials from the three cities and two counties on either side of the creek, has been trying for more than a year to get a permit from the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board so that it can begin widening levees, building flood walls and restoring marshlands as part of the long-planned flood-control effort. In March, staff from the water board rejected the creek authority's permit requests and requested more information and design modifications. The creek authority reapplied on July 31.

During a long and emotional meeting in Oakland, dozens of residents, elected leaders and senior staff from the three cities appealed to the board to approve the project, which aims to protect the particularly flood-prone area in the downstream section of the watershed.

"We are asking you to help us," Sims told the board. "We need your help."

Dennis Parker, who lives in the Gardens neighborhood of East Palo Alto and was one of many attendees to wear "Permit our Project" buttons to Wednesday's meeting, echoed her plea.

"We are here to put a human face on something that might seen like a engineering project or a wildlife project," Parker said. "There are human beings here at risk.

"We're here to look you in the eye and let you know that we need help and we need it soon. We need for everyone involved in this thing to move the project forward with a deliberate speed."

In rejecting the project in March, the water board asked for a host of new information, including a broad request for "a complete set of technical reports and corresponding data." It also called for the city to re-examine alternatives that had already been analyzed and discarded, including one that would use land at the Palo Alto Airport. The board also raised flags about a proposal to lower levees near the marshy Faber Tract, a habitat for two endangered species, the clapper rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse. In its revised application, the creek authority leaves the levees intact in most places and raises them in one section.

The Wednesday hearing was designated as a "workshop," so no vote took place. The only decision that the water board made was to affirm the authority of Executive Officer Bruce Wolfe to make a ruling on the application. The board's other option was to reserve the approval authority for itself.

The vast majority of the meeting was comprised of public testimony and staff presentations from the water board and creek authority. Len Materman, executive director of the creek authority, recapped the project's long timeline, which traces back to the 1998 flood and included extensive cooperation between the three cities and the gradual winnowing down of design alternatives from nine to one.

Action is needed now, Materman told the water board, to ensure funding is not jeopardized from the state and that work is completed between the 2016-2017 rain season. Delaying the permit "prolongs the known risk to life and property," Materman added, and also means polluted water will continue to flow into Faber Tract.

"There's too much urgency here," Materman said. "We've got to get going on this."

Mayors and council members from the three communities also addressed the board. Palo Alto Councilman Pat Burt noted that the water board didn't make its concerns known during the environmental-analysis project for the project. Menlo Park Councilwoman Kirsten Keith said the cities have already lost one construction season because of the permitting delay and called the project a "very serious matter for us." East Palo Alto Councilman Ruben Abrica -- who, like Burt and Keith, serves on the creek authority's board of directors -- called the permitting process a "nightmarish situation."

"Just like you have a responsibility to protect the waters of the state, I ask: Who protects people from flooding? No one really does. The federal government doesn't. The state government doesn't," Abrica said.

The five communities have made a commitment, he said, to protect each other from floods and they have stuck together over the course of the long planing process.

"Now we're poised to really do something and we'd really appreciate your support," Abrica said.

East Palo Alto Mayor Laura Martinez called the project "critical to the health and safety of our community."

"Flooding has cost our city and residents too much ... We must construct a flood-control project to protect our city and our vulnerable residents," she said.

Among the angriest speakers was Palo Alto City Manager James Keene, who lashed out at water board staff for making the permitting process longer and more difficult than it reasonably should have been.

He said he was disappointed by the behavior of water board staff, who he accused of excluding the creek authority from stakeholder meetings; exceeding authority and "continuing to promote project alternatives that are off the table because they're not practicable, necessary or possible." One staff member, he said, has been "acting more like an activist and not a regulator, a citizen and not a professional staff person."

"It's my belief this project will never be permitted as long as this staff behavior continues on this project," Keene said.

John Doughty, an East Palo Alto community developer, also spoke passionately about his city's recent flood history. He recalled responding to the flooded homes, including Sims', in December 2012. He described the experience as "very, very scary." While acknowledging the board's concerns, he maintained that the project would enhance the environment.

"Any statement to say that we didn't follow the right process or go through a good process over the last decade is frustrating and something we don't find acceptable as the JPA, as a city, as residents," he added.

Wednesday's meeting was a rare opportunity for the board to consider a project that so far has been reviewed exclusively at staff level. After hearing from the speakers, all five board members said they would like to see the project move forward quickly. Several stressed, however, that their responsibility is to make sure the project doesn't have a negative impact on water quality.

"Although we really care about people and we want everyone to be safe and sound and protected, our mandate is to protect the waters of the state," board member Newsha Ajami said. "We need to make sure we follow the law and think abut these permits in a way that impacts the waters of the state. That is within our limits."

She also said the board "doesn't appreciate making this personal."

"This is a professional matter and we need to deal with this in a professional manner."

Board member Jim McGrath also said he didn't appreciate speakers making the issue "personal" and argued that it's unfair to blame the delays entirely on environmental issues. Funding, he said, was the big concern for many years.

"I'm sure that there will eventually be approval of this board," McGrath said. "I think we all sense the urgency."

McGrath said he has "an interest in a resolution that is as quick as possible."

Board members Margaret Abe-Koga and William Kissinger both concurred.

But Chair Terry Young stressed that the board cannot simply approve the project "at any cost."

"I'd love it if all the pieces can fall into place and if he (Executive Officer Bruce Wolfe) can do that at earliest possible date," Young said. "But we cannot rush to judgment if facts come to bear, or if one of the agencies brings something up."

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 14, 2014 at 10:06 am

> In rejecting the project in March, the water board asked for a host
> of new information, including a broad request for "a complete set of
> technical reports and corresponding data."

It would pay for us to know if this Regional Water Board (RWB) has a "pro forma" list of documents, studies, data, etc. that are needed, or required by State/Federal law, in order for projects like this one to progress through the permitting process without "surprises", or other unreasonable delays.

It seems like the RWB (or its staff) are making up the rules as it goes along. Perhaps every project is a different--but this project seems to be taking a very long time for approval, without a lot of explanation as to why it is taking so long.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Garden Gnome
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 14, 2014 at 10:26 am

"It's been more than 16 years since a flood..."

"I think we all sense the urgency."

Yep.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Janet
a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 14, 2014 at 11:13 am

Put the creek back where it was originally or buy up all the houses that flood. Levees are not going to cure the problem


 +   Like this comment
Posted by JoeCommentor
a resident of another community
on Aug 14, 2014 at 12:08 pm

Ever hear of not 'living in the floodplain'?

Give it a try...

The 'government' (of the people) approved the building (for the people), the 'government' can buy you out (by the people).


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Stop the Insanity
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 14, 2014 at 12:22 pm

Houses should never have been built in the vicinity of the creek, or any flood plain. "100-year floods" now occur approx every 20 years, according to the USGS.

Since those ill-planned neighborhoods obviously aren't going anywhere, and the last "100-year flood" that will now occur every twenty years, was 16 years ago, action needs to start NOW


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 14, 2014 at 12:29 pm

Problem is that FEMA revised the flood plane maps (broadened the potential flood areas, and upgraded the existing zones from 100yr to 50 yr, etc.) just as the 1989 flood hit the area. In other words, many of the homes in the risk areas pre-exist the revised flood maps.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by A-Little-History-Please
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 14, 2014 at 12:53 pm

> Houses should never have been built in the vicinity of the
> creek, or any flood plain.

Unfortunately, housing started being built in Palo Alto around 1892, or so. Creek flooding was probably unknown to those who were building the houses. It wasn't until about 1955 that a really big flood came along--and by then, a lot of homes, and businesses had been built in the flood plain.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by jerry99
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 14, 2014 at 12:58 pm

Years and years and years were spent and millions of dollars on San Francisquito Creek. Enough is enough. Just another way to spend taxpayer money to do something that has a very low probability of occuring.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by DZ
a resident of Terman Middle School
on Aug 14, 2014 at 1:09 pm

In a year of historical drought, people want to talk about spend money on protecting from flood... Where is water going to come from?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 14, 2014 at 5:29 pm

@DZ - That's a perplexing comment. Droughts aren't permanent, and it is also possible to flood during a drought. The creek almost overflowed two years ago, during the drought.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Stop the Trolls
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 14, 2014 at 6:11 pm

Uh, jerry -- you would also be the first person to complain LOUDLY were there to be a flood.

You can't have it both ways.

And better to prepare than to let a situation slide.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Allen Veaner
a resident of another community
on Aug 14, 2014 at 7:20 pm

Some time back--maybe 25 or so years ago, Arthur Yablonky, a Stanford grad student, drowned in the San Francisquito Creek during a flash flood, leaving his young wife a widow. Sudden downpours are more or less the norm in the American Southwest. True, it would be better not to build in that creek's vicinity but we ought to be protecting those who, through no fault of their own, already live there. I'm sure they didn't build their homes in that location.

Allen V., former P.A. resident


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Allen Veaner
a resident of another community
on Aug 14, 2014 at 7:22 pm

Some time back--maybe 25 or so years ago, Arthur Yablonky, a Stanford grad student, drowned in the San Francisquito Creek during a flash flood, leaving his young wife a widow. Sudden downpours are more or less the norm in the American Southwest. True, it would be better not to build in that creek's vicinity but we ought to be protecting those who, through no fault of their own, already live there. I'm sure they didn't build their homes in that location.

Allen V., former P.A. resident


 +   Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 14, 2014 at 10:11 pm

I believe that was a sporting accident in the sixties.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Aug 14, 2014 at 10:26 pm

A Public Notice appeared in the SJM that the listed creeks were going to be cleared of existing silt prior to winter. Three creeks in PA listed - but not San Francisquito Creek. The "creek" starts at Searsville Lake at Jasper Ridge - Stanford. The lake clean-up is still an unresolved issue. But if you look at the creek just below 101 at the bridge it has silt build up and excess vegetation. That is something the cities can resolve immediately since there is a lot of earth moving going on in that vicinity for the Athletic Center. There is also excess vegetation in the creek on the sides - this all comes out during flooding and compacts at the bridges and results in further flooding. Why is it so hard for the city of PA, Menlo Park, and East PA to get in there and clear the creek? Removing excess vegetation is a start, and removing excess silt. JUST DO IT. Put a date in the paper and ask volunteers to come help do this. THEY WILL COME.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Memories
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2014 at 1:10 am

Allen - Yablonsky drowned 45 years ago on a raft in the creek, because he got stuck in the raft's ropes.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 15, 2014 at 5:42 pm

@resident 1 - You'd probably be arrested by the feds for interfering with the breeding habits of the salt marsh harvest mouse. You need an environmental impact report, two lawsuits, and a briefcase of bribes to get anything done.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Aug 15, 2014 at 8:50 pm

I am talking about the creek between El Camino and 101 - it needs to be clean of excess vegetation. In Adobe Creek they bring in a group of trucks and scoop up the stuff and haul it away. This is a recognized flood control area. The creek just below 101 has excess silt - this has nothing to do with the mouse - the silt is being pushed upward from the bay during high tide. So get rid of it. The mouse will be overjoyed. The mouse does not live in the creek - he lives in the baylands on solid ground. The mouse is not looking forward to mismanagement of the baylands and flooding - he prefers to be safe on dry ground with fresh water that flows downward to the bay - not salt water that moves upward from the bay. If we do not clear the silt the water cannot move out and empty into the bay.
The Mouse is looking to us for his support. He is a Palo Alto Mouse.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Old Paly Stone Cold Player
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 21, 2014 at 10:42 am

Certain environmentalists associated with the Complete the Refuge are the ones that torpedoed us at the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. You would think our representative on the Santa Clara Valley Water District, Brian Schmidt would help us fix the creek. My understand is that he is so close to the friends at Complete the Refuge including the deal killer Florence LaRiviere, that Brian tipped the staff off on how to jam us up getting the creek fixed.

You might want to look at his opponent in the upcoming race - Web Link

He is endorsed by the majority of the Palo Alto City Council and the School Board. I guess they don't think Schmidt the incumbent is doing a good job.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 22, 2014 at 11:49 pm

Just a little Trivia: According to City manager Jim Keene, Who spoke at a recent meeting, the city is running a deficit of $1,000,000 for the delay of the project.The $1,000,000 was for payment for incoming dirt for the levees. Most likely coming from John Arriagas' Stanford projects.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Aug 23, 2014 at 8:31 am

Stanford's big argument for not cleaning up Searsville Lake was the expense of hauling away the silt. Note that this is not salt water silt - this is high grade fresh water silt. Many responses on how it did not make sense financially to clean up Searsville Lake. Such hand wringing over the expense.

And now the argument is no dirt because no money.
Where is the logic in all of this - start clearing the silt from Searsville lake and haul it down to where needed in the bayland levees where needed.
It is unclear why Stanford and Palo Alto cannot work together to manage the creek from end to end for the benefit of all.
Someone must work for the insurance companies that are getting paid big bucks for flood insurance.


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