Creek project trickles ahead despite spiking costs

San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority decides to implement downstream improvements in phases; warns of possible cost-sharing by property owners

An ambitious proposal to tame the flood-prone San Francisquito Creek might have to be split into phases after a new analysis showed the project's cost more than doubling, to $20 million.

Ultimately, the cost overflow may mean that owners of properties near the downstream portions of the creek may have to help pay to top off the project through a "special financing district" bond measure, according to officials.

The downstream project near the Palo Alto baylands is the first of a series of improvements that the San Francisquito Creek Joint Power Authority is considering as part of its effort to protect Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park from a 100-year flood -- an event that by definition has a 1 percent chance of occurring every year.

The project focuses on the area east of U.S. Highway 101, considered the most vulnerable area around the volatile creek. In 1998, a flood overtopped the creek, damaging more than 1,700 properties.

The creek authority aims to increase the creek's capacity and improve flood protection by widening the creek channel, removing an old levee near the Palo Alto Baylands and installing floodwalls. The widening would place new levees on the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course, requiring a redesign of the course.

The authority's board of directors consists of elected officials from the three cities, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the San Mateo County Flood Control District.

The downstream plan has already won the approval of the agencies and is scheduled to achieve environmental clearance by next summer. But the agencies now have run into a new obstacle: recent changes in the project's designs and the authority's goals have pushed the estimated price tag from $8 million to $20 million.

JPA Executive Director Len Materman told the Weekly the jump in the cost estimate isn't too surprising given recent project revisions. The previous estimate was based on a "conceptual analysis" and didn't consider many of the practical design issues now included, he said.

The new estimate includes the costs of demolishing the existing levees, relocating PG&E transmission towers along the creek and reconstructing the golf course. It also includes a different design for the floodwalls near the creek, Materman said.

The creek authority's goals have also become more ambitious since the first estimate. Its new criteria call for the downstream project to provide protection from both a 100-year flood and from sea-level rise, Materman said. Before, sea-level rise was not a major consideration.

"To build something now that doesn't take into account sea-level rise would be short-sighted," Materman said. "We wouldn't want the community in 10, 20 or 30 years to have to go back and rebuild what should've been done today."

Under the new plan, the first phase of the downstream project would include removing the existing levee between the creek and the baylands, building new levees to create a widened channel, reconstructing the golf course to accommodate the levees, relocating the transmission lines and excavating sediment in the channel. The second phase would include installing floodwalls between Highway 101 and the new levees and connecting the floodwalls to the new Highway 101 bridge, according to Materman's report.

So far, the authority plans on having about $15 million available for the project, most of it from the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which passed a bond measure in 2000 to raise money for flood protection.

To complete the project, the authority may need to create a special financing district encompassing sections of Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto near the creek, Materman said. Owners of properties in this district could then be asked to pass a bond to complete the project, he said.

The JPA board agreed at the agency's Oct. 28 meeting that given the new cost estimate the authority should phase the project rather than wait until there is enough money to build the full project.

The first phase is expected to protect the downstream area from a 100-year flood -- but just barely. If such an event occurs, the creek would be filled almost to the brim, with about a foot to spare, Materman said. While this phase would constitute "substantial flood control benefit" for the Palo Alto and East Palo Alto residents near the downstream area, it would not be enough to get their properties out of the 100-year flood plain or eliminate the requirement for flood insurance. That would have to wait until the project's second phase is completed.

More than 3,000 properties are currently required to contribute to the National Flood Insurance Program because of the creek, according to the JPA.

In addition to providing flood protection, the authority aims to use its capital projects to provide new and improved habitats for the area's golfers and hikers, as well as for endangered species in the creek's watershed.

Rob de Geus, Palo Alto's division manager for Recreation and Golf, told the City Council in October that up to six holes at the golf course may have to be reconfigured as a result of the new levees.

Mayor Pat Burt, who represents Palo Alto on the JPA board, said at a recent council meeting that the disruption to the golf course is expected to take "months, not years" and that it will ultimately result in an improved course, according to golf-course architects.

"They believe it will be done in non-peak season for golfing and that it will have a net positive result in the quality and value of the course," Burt said.

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Like this comment
Posted by use fee
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 12, 2010 at 9:51 am

If flooding only affects a small number of residents, how about letting them vote on whether or not they want to pay for it? Their insurance companies may want to pitch in, too.

The city spends so much money on improvements to the north end of town, while the rest of town is neglected.

Like this comment
Posted by not so clear cut
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 12, 2010 at 12:30 pm

I think you'll find there is only one insurance company in this instance: FEMA.
It's also going to be hard to get a bond since the last time it flooded in Palo Alto, those affected just chared the cost back to the city. The city has built bridges, which caused the excessive flooding through poor design and restricting flow. It will really be up to the city to bear the cost to fix these.

Like this comment
Posted by qq
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 12, 2010 at 12:35 pm

If the creek had not be re-routed in order to bring the golf course and airport into Santa Clara County, we would not be having this problem.

Plus, the Palo Alto Yacht Harbor would still be a harbor, and not a mud pit.


Like this comment
Posted by mec
a resident of Menlo Park
on Nov 12, 2010 at 2:22 pm

As a resident of the Willows paying over $800- per year for FEMA flood insurance I would MUCH rather see some or all of those funds used locally for real improvements rather than paying out claims in other parts of the country. I wonder how the annual premiums paid by residents along the creek compares to the cost of this project? If these improvements would mean the end to required flood insurance then I'm sure most residents affected would happily "buy their way out of the flood plain" by funding a solution.

Like this comment
Posted by Jen Joo
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 15, 2010 at 1:52 pm

The JPA is back in the news again. And with bad news. First it was insider hiring, now it's sneaking this double increase with full transparency again.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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