Creek authority may challenge permit rejection for flood-control project

Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park officials hope to rebuild levees, widen channel to protect communities from San Francisquito Creek

After suffering a stinging bureaucratic blow in the permitting process last month, the agency charged with improving flood control around the volatile San Francisquito Creek approved on Thursday an approach for getting the long-awaited project back on track: cooperation and, if needed, litigation.

That's the strategy that the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority board of directors endorsed on Thursday as it voted unanimously to authorize an appeal of a February decision by the Regional Water Quality Control Board to deny a permit for the project, which aims to protect sections of Palo Alto and East Palo Alto from floods. The water board's ruling dealt an unexpected setback to the creek authority's project, which targets the particularly vulnerable downstream area between Highway 101 and the San Francisco Bay. The area suffered heavy damage in a February 1998 flood and officials from the cities around the creek have been looking at ways to protect their communities from the next flood ever since. The creek authority's current project includes rebuilding levees, widening a channel and constructing floodwalls along East Bayshore Road.

But the project suffered a setback last month, when the water board notified the creek authority that the permit application was denied without prejudice. In a Feb. 27 letter, the water board requested that the creek authority submit a new application that analyzes at least two other design alternatives and that includes more technical data, including "all of the hydrologic and hydraulic modeling performed for the various alternatives evaluated for the Project." It also requested that a future application include upstream alternatives.

The creek authority noted in response that it had already evaluated and rejected many of the alternatives that the water board is advocating and argued that the urgently needed project shouldn't be delayed by exploration of upstream alternatives that may never materialize. The creek authority's letter stated that it supports the use of upstream detention as part of the broad planning effort and that is has been discussing such projects for several years with Stanford University, which owns property upstream.

"However, we must not hold up a proposed project that eliminates an immediate threat to life and property in an underserved community by waiting for an upstream detention project by a private entity that is far off in the future, or may never happen," the creek authority's response stated.

The creek authority, which has been pursuing the project in the most flood-prone area in the creek's for more than five years, has a board of directors composed of elected officials from Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the San Mateo County Flood Control District. Before Thursday's meeting, the creek authority's board conferred in a closed session and agreed to authorize staff to file a petition challenging the denial of the permit application. The petition will be filed with the State Water Resources Control Board, which oversees the nine regional boards. The creek authority is also requesting that the review of the petition be suspended while it tries to resolve its issues with the water board.

Menlo Park Councilwoman Kirsten Keith, who chairs the creek authority's board, said the board agreed to file the petition because the 30-day deadline to challenge the board's denial will soon expire. But the cities are requesting that the challenge be held in abeyance "so we can continue working with the California and regional water boards to have our certification approved," Keith said.

In the weeks since the permit rejection, staff from the creek authority has been meeting with water board officials in hopes of bridging the gap and satisfying the board's concerns. Len Materman, the creek authority's executive director, said his agency has agreed to provide to the water board an analysis of the two alternatives the board wanted to see. The water board's main concern, Materman said, was the impact of the project on the Faber tract, a marshy stretch in East Palo Alto that is home to the endangered clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse.

One alternative that the creek authority will have to further explore is extending the new widened channel further north, to the point where the Palo Alto Airport meets the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course. The other alternative would create a new bypass channel that would divert some of the flow from the creek to a location near the Baylands Athletic Center. The channel would cut across the southern edge of the airport property and discharge near the site of the former Palo Alto Harbor.

Materman said he hopes that recent conversations with the water board will allow the creek authority to accelerate the process of complying with the board's concerns. Still, he said, the creek authority will have plenty of work to do in the next few weeks in addressing these concerns.

"The good news is we believe we have have a specific understanding with their executive director of exactly what needs to be done," Materman said. "Hopefully that means the goal posts are no longer moving. That's our goal."

It helps that the water board denied the permit "without prejudice," which allows the creek authority to try again with some modifications. In its rejection letter, the water board's Executive Officer Bruce Wolfe wrote that water board recognizes "the significance of the Project to the community and the JPA's urgency is securing all permits for the Project and proceeding to construction."

The letter of rejection, Wolfe wrote, is "intended to provide guidance to the JPA on how to best 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," Wolfe's letter reads.


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Posted by Garden Gnome
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 28, 2014 at 12:25 pm

14 Years and Counting...

1 person likes this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 28, 2014 at 2:50 pm

The San Francisquito Creek is identified as an "official flood control" creek from the standpoint of the SCVDW and FEMA. I think it needs to be addressed from top to bottom.
1. The Anderson Dam is going to be retrofitted for upgraded earthquake specifications. That can be used as a precedent to require that the Searsville Dam be upgraded for earthquake current requirements.
2, The Coyote Creek - San Jose is being sued because of homeless trash - that can be a precedent for clearing the creek from top to bottom of any homeless trash. The total creek can also be manicured to remove some vegetation instead of letting it grow out of control. I checked it out today - a lot of vegetation growth - it needs a hair cut.
3. I checked out the lower portion - East Bayshore at the bridge and there was build up of gravel - it needs to be dredged to some degree so there is not a lot of sediment buildup.
4. Stanford needs to release some water to assist in keeping the channel somewhat clean and to assist in removing the build up of black sludge.
5. I talked to the PA golf course - there is salt water reversing up the creek which is ruining the grass - and eventually the trees. This is the same argument for the total bay in general - salt water intrusion into clear water areas.
Starting this project at El Camino going into the bay is really hurting the situation. Work to get Stanford to cooperate in releasing some water and building some holding pools up at the top.
Good Luck.

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Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 28, 2014 at 4:04 pm

@Garden Gnome: for comparison, construction took:

Golden Gate Bridge- 4 years
Hoover Dam - 5 years
Empire State Building - 2 years
Burj Khalifa - 6 years

San Francisquito Creek flood control - 14 years, and not even at ground breaking yet.

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Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 29, 2014 at 9:10 pm

I am trying to figure out what the city is doing with the Baylands. I stopped by there around 5:00 PM and took the road to the end - parking lot. There was a lot of water on the north side trench of the road - almost to the bridge, but the south side was relatively dry. Still the black grunge.
The end result was that the water was very high going back towards the airport.
I am going to check that again tomorrow - but I do not get what is happening here. They are shutting off the ability of water to fill the south side area. That will worth a telephone call on Tuesday.

1 person likes this
Posted by Floodprone
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 31, 2014 at 12:23 pm

As other Bay Area flood control planning authorities have repeatedly demonstrated through their own successful projects, effective 100-year flood protection can only be realized by creating a plan that addresses the entire watershed. This must include Stanford as a willing partner, and the downstream cities of Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and East Palo Alto should no longer tolerate the University's foot-dragging on contributing solutions to our common problem. As Palo Alto city engineers recently confirmed, retrofitting every bridge east of El Camino will help with 35-year flooding levels, but unless Stanford gets some skin in the game, everyone downstream from the campus better put on their waders whenever we have a wet winter.

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Posted by Willows Neighbor
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 31, 2014 at 3:26 pm

Before putting flood walls, why not require the upstream properties with large paved parking lots control their own run off. Take out the paving around Stanford Shopping Center, Student housing, the hospital, downtown Menlo Park,and Ladera Shopping Center.
Replace it with gravel, or some permeable material. to reduce the speed of the runoff.
Upstream containment and diversion is an important part of the solution.

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Posted by j99
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 31, 2014 at 3:34 pm

This retrofitting of flood control on the creek is endless.I remember paying property taxes and watching the work, although occasional, go on for years and years. Let the people in the 100 year flood buy flood insurance and stop spending Palo Alto taxpayers money.
And if the City council would stop the endless parade of new apartments, condominiums, businesses,homes and leave the land to absorb some water rather than be paved concrete or blacktop and drain the water immediately it would help considerably.

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Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 31, 2014 at 4:36 pm

@j99 - I wasn't complaining when my tax dollars were going to fix Matadero Creek and help Barron Park out...

2 people like this
Posted by Getting Smart
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 31, 2014 at 6:11 pm

It's become clear that the only effective way to address the flooding issue is to fix the creek environment from it's source to the bay. This should have been the plan from day one. Trying to tackle it piecemeal is ludicrous and a waste of time, money and community resources. Let's face it, Standford is and has been the bottleneck to an effective long-term solution. So what's to be done? Those of you who have threatened the city with a lawsuit if/when the creek floods again, which seems ultimately self-defeating, should think about directing your ire at Stanford. Someone or some agency needs to hold the University and Standford Development Corp. accountable.

1 person likes this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 2, 2014 at 6:17 pm

I just got updated maps from AAA - start looking at the problem areas and they become clear. You can see where the creek is very narrow - Jasper Ridge Preserve - and where it is wider. It helps focus where the problem areas are and how the different creeks converge in the area of the SU golf Course at the top. It also helps to identify what is the city of Palo Alto, vs Stanford, vs Menlo Park, and East Palo alto. Help is needed from top to bottom.
It also clearly shows where the various parks and preserves are and how they interrelate. All of the elements have to work within the city limits of the various participants. I consider a Stanford a city for the purpose of this effort as they are clearly marked out with boundaries.

1 person likes this
Posted by Crescent Park Mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 5, 2014 at 9:33 am

FINALLY!!!! A government agency that questions the direction in which the SFCJPA is taking this project.

2 people like this
Posted by PatSayJack
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 5, 2014 at 12:27 pm

Got to start from the top. However Stanford has deep pockets, and friends in high places. Have you ever seen Stanford not get what they want?

Like this comment
Posted by Yikes!
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 5, 2014 at 1:09 pm

The USGS states that 100-year floods are occurring every 20 years now. We had a 100-year flood in 1998: four years left until the next major catastrophe!

1 person likes this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 10, 2014 at 10:54 pm

Think about all of the people that are required to obtain flood insurance in PA, including employees of Stanford that do not live on campus. A lot of insurance companies are writing a lot of policies. If we could get the top of the problem worked on - Stanford property - Searsville dam with holding pools and work down the creek then we could possibly reduce the flood insurance.

FEMA should be on top of this - they have no money - so we are subsidizing the whole flood operation. The courts should be looking at that problem - lack of enforcing the repair of a known problem which then generates insurance liability.

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Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 11, 2014 at 11:38 am

In the SJM today 04/11/14 is a large article about the return of El Nino which will produce a very rainy fall and winter. This is reported by NOAA in collaboration with the SU Department of Environmental Earth System Science. In a separate article there is a report concerning flood insurance which will have a 18% increase. The National Flood Insurance Program is in debt so will be reducing its assistance. If you put those facts together then the collective wisdom says that SU needs to clean up Searsville Dam so that it holds water, and also create some holding pools on the upper part of its property. It needs to work with the collection of agencies and city governments that are trying to mitigate the effects downstream of the impacts of the heavy rainfall and flood damage.

The damage is in part to it's employees who live off campus and are subject to the high flood insurance. Palo Alto residents, as well as East Palo Alto and Menlo Park businesses and residents are adversely affected by lack of action to addressing this problem and working together to fortify and clean up the creek. All agencies should be on notice that they have to effect the required changes over the summer of this year.

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Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 13, 2014 at 3:31 pm

Article today in the SJM 04.13.14 - Hidden Danger - Unstable Hillsides. Article is about landfalls in the Santa Cruz Mountains next to stream areas.
If we are going to have an El Nino winter which will saturate the sludge in Searsville Lake - making it heavier than water - and breaking the dam which is old you will have a very interesting situation on your hands. Suggest you have your Earth Sciences group review the situation. You are not building in the hills for a reason - which may be that the land is on a major earthquake fault and could be unstable.

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

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