News


San Francisquito Creek project sees breakthrough after permit stall

Effort to improve flood-protection finally set to receive certification

An effort by Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park to improve flood protection around the volatile San Francisquito Creek earned a hard-fought victory on Friday afternoon, when officials learned that the project is on the verge of earning a permit from a state agency that has been withholding it for more than a year.

The determination by the Bay Area Regional Water Quality Control Board was announced at a special meeting at Stanford University, which brought together top staff from the water board and the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, the agency that is spearheading the $37 million flood-control project.

Though the project still has to receive the approval from several federal regulatory agencies, most notably the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, the certificate from the water board removes what so far has been the steepest obstacle for the project, and clears the way for other agencies to issue their own permits.

The project includes rebuilding and modifying levees near the Palo Alto Golf Course, installing new flood walls, and removing sediment from the creek channel to improve water flow. The project aims to protect the particularly vulnerable areas downstream of the creek, between Highway 101 and the San Francisco Bay, including a portion of East Palo Alto and Palo Alto's Crescent Park neighborhood.

If the water board issues the certificate in the next week, as the board's Executive Officer Bruce Wolfe assured the three cities Friday, it will end a process that was launched in March 2013 and continuously surprised, frustrated and angered council members and residents from the affected cities.

In March of this year, after months of negotiations and repeated requests for new information and further analysis, the water board rejected without prejudice the application for the flood-control project. Officials from the three cities have long maintained that many of the requests fall far beyond the scope of the water agency, and that the water board's actions are endangering the lives and property of thousands of residents who live near the creek.

The creek authority made some design modifications in response to the water board, including a raising of the flood walls to protect the Faber Tract from flood runoff, and submitted a new application on July 31.

Dozens of East Palo Alto residents, including those whose homes suffered massive flood damage in the February 1998 flood, made a trip to Oakland in August to make their case for the project to the regional water board. At that meeting, the board of directors of the state agency agreed that the project should move forward as soon as possible, and affirmed that the decision to issue the certificate would be made by Wolfe rather than by the board.

Two weeks after that meeting, Wolfe issued another letter finding the latest application incomplete and requesting more information. The board's August letter brought up dozens of new questions and demanded more information, including details about monitoring methods, flood wall designs, and assurance that the proposed levee would not provide inferior protection to East Palo Alto than to Palo Alto, as some critics have maintained.

It also proposed splitting the project into two phases, with the bulk of the work on the East Palo Alto side taking priority, a suggestion that the creek authority deemed as infeasible because it would substantially change the project and require the agency to redo much of its work.

On Friday, Wolfe acknowledged that while some of the questions in the August letter of incompletion pertained to issues that needed to be resolved for certification, others were there mainly to help the water board answer questions from the public. He said five different staff members worked on putting together the letter and explained that this is why it seems like it was written "by committee."

Most importantly, Wolfe made it clear Friday that he now has all the information he needs to give the creek authority the certification it has long been seeking. The certification would be issued as soon as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases its officials public description, which is expected to happen in the coming weeks.

The built-up tension between the water board and the creek authority was on full display at the Friday meeting, with top staff from the two agencies offering their own histories of the project and explanations for the delays. Water board staff also fielded repeated accusations from local officials about the lack of transparency in the process, with Palo Alto City Manager James Keene and creek authority Executive Director Len Materman taking the lead.

Materman and Kevin Murray, project manager at the creek authority, argued that the entire process was marred by secret meetings between the water board, project opponents and other regulatory agencies – meetings from which the creek authority was explicitly barred. This, they maintained, led to great confusion, unacceptable delays and unexpected denials and requests. In many cases, previously answered questions and analyzed design options re-emerge time and time again as obstacles to approval. This included proposals to use more land from the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course and Palo Alto Airport for the flood-control project.

Greg Stepanicich, attorney for the creek authority, argued that the water board's denial of the application should never have occurred. If the water board had concerns, it should have raised them and the creek authority would deal with them, Stepanicich said.

Wolfe had explained that the denial was dictated largely by the calendar and board's determination that the permit could not be granted within the required one-year timeframe. But both Stepanicich and Materman maintained that the surprising denial in March prompted all the other federal regulatory agencies to halt their work on the project, significantly setting the project back. The delay, Stepanicich said, "should not have occurred."

"Simply, it makes no sense to us when the denial comes out of the blue," Stepanicich said. "It changed the whole ballgame here when we had a denied application. That is what disrupted the process with the federal agencies."

Wolfe disagreed and maintained that because of "streamlining requirements," the water board had 30 days to respond to the city and because it determined that it could not issue its ruling within this time frame, he felt denying the application is the best way to keep the process moving along.

"I stand by that action," Wolfe said.

After Wolfe declared that he now has everything he needs to deem the application complete, Stepanicich asked if he can have a letter putting that in writing in the next week. Wolfe agreed.

The U.S. Army Corps had also indicated last month that it deems the creek authority's recent application to the Corps to be complete, Wolfe said. Once the Corps issues its official description of the project, which it is expected to do in the next two weeks, the certification from the state board would be issued.

Wolfe said the water board's concerns about protecting the endangered species -- clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse -- in the Faber Tract have been "largely resolved," not 100 percent but "close enough that we can move forward." He noted, however, that the National Marine and Fisheries Service has indicated that it has its own concerns about protecting species in the upper portion of the creek channel and that it could take months to resolve those issues.

The meeting included three board members from the water board, including board Chair Terry Young, who led the meeting and reminded the public that "we're not here to talk about the past" but to "get through to the future." Board members Newsha Ajami and Margaret Abe-Koga, a Mountain View councilwoman, also participated in the roundtable meeting at Stanford's Spilker Engineering & Applied Sciences Building. Representing the creek authority's board of directors were Palo Alto Councilman Pat Burt and East Palo Alto Councilman Ruben Abrica.

Both Burt and Abrica spoke about the re-emerging question of whether East Palo Alto and Palo Alto would get equal flood protection from the project. The levee on the Palo Alto side would be larger by a few inches because it would be a new structure and would need to settle, while the one on the East Palo Alto side is built on top of an existing levee, Burt explained.

He noted that the explanation has been offered time and time again over the past eight months but the question keeps returning, most recently in the August letter from the water board that asks whether the project is sufficient to protect the health and safety of the two communities. Burt noted that it would offer protection to the area from a 100-year flood, a goal that the communities have been pursuing for more than 15 years.

"The implication is that this is still a concern and it's still confusing, despite the amount of times that the settling of levees (question) has been asked and re-asked," Burt said. "I want to put that to rest."

Abrica agreed and said that recent back-door insinuations that East Palo Alto isn't getting as much protection as its neighbor is based on bad information and has "revived some very strong reactions in our community." East Palo Alto council members, he said, have been working with their partner cities for more than five years to finalize this project and they fully support it.

Wolfe said later in the meeting that he feels the issue of adequate protection for East Palo Alto "has been addressed" and called it a "local issue."

Keene focused on the "transparency issue" and urged that the "bias should be toward completion as opposed to delay." The water board should focus only on its own purview, he said, rather than anticipate the concerns of other agencies and delay its approval based on those concerns.

Materman made a similar point in his presentation.

"We believe the quickest way to complete all the permits is if each agency completes its permit," Materman said.

Comments

5 people like this
Posted by ElectionChoice
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 1, 2014 at 6:27 pm

Who can I vote for to punish the water board for delays?

Winter is coming and another year without flood control!!


8 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 1, 2014 at 7:18 pm

I check the creek when I go to the Bayshore post office. There is the build-up of silt and vegetation directly at the bridge which does not change - just gets worse. The city does not need permission to bring in one of the many trucks that are over at the landfill and "soccer field" to just run through to clear vegetation on the sides and build up of silt. There are businesses at the east Bayshore bridge - as well as a school in the area.
I remember many times when that area is over whelmed with water. Where is the preventive care here? Also the creek from 101 to El Camino has excessive build up of vegetation on the sides of the creek which will break off and compact at the bridges.
We get continual notifications from the utility group on preparing for winter and flooding. I would like to see some preventive care of the creek on both sides of Hwy 101 before the heavier rains come - if ever.


6 people like this
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 1, 2014 at 11:40 pm

The article says the water board had a secret meeting with "project opponents." Who are these opponents, and what is their agenda? It is a lot harder to fight when you don't know your enemy.


8 people like this
Posted by Brian Schmidt
a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 2, 2014 at 7:00 am

Good news, if long-delayed.

To clarify something that sometime gets confused, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board is the state agency that has delayed this project, while the Santa Clara Valley Water District is one of the five members of the creek agency that put together and funded this project (I represent Palo Alto and other north County cities on the Water District). The Water District provided much of the technical expertise and the funding for the proposal, and will oversee the construction when it starts.

It has taken too long to get to this point, and since we can only work within the stream channel during the dry season, the delay at the Regional Water Board has cost us an additional year. On the other hand, there would be no project at all if we didn't have the money to build it. The bulk of the funding only came available in 2012 when county voters approved the Safe Clean Water Measure B for the Water District (with especially high support in Palo Alto), and the remainder of the funding also coming recently from a state grant and from San Mateo local governments this spring. With the funding in place, we need to make this project happen.

Meanwhile, the creek agency and member agencies are patrolling the creek to remove obstacles like fallen trees that could magnify problems during a flood, and we are also investigating temporary sandbag placement in certain critical locations. The sandbags would not prevent a very large flood, bu they might be enough to prevent a repeat of the December 2012 flood event.

One last note - sediment removal from Highway 101 downstream is part of the proposed project, and requires many state agency approvals. The channel will also be redesigned so the bottom part slopes towards the lowest point in the middle, where daily tidal flows will remove sediment that builds up from the stream.


3 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 2, 2014 at 8:13 am

Brian - thank you for responding. I attended a meeting at the Santa Clara Water Board at the beginning of summer on this topic. The Saratoga people went first - the water district had the intention of bringing in trucks and tree removal equipment on a small creek that had not experienced any flood problems in the past. Much controversy on that issue since the removal of trees was on the easement of personal property. The cost of that operation would be substantial and deleterious to the personal property owners. There was no point to the plan. Some of the presenters were crying about the removal of trees on "their property".

Then the SF Creek group was up - much input from presenters. One input was the street people who live in the creek who had their point of view to offer. So there is a street people lobby that has no issue going to the SCDWP to state their case.

The major problem I see is that there is a major government and commercial value to having floods - every one can point to an "event" to justify the expenditure of money - most the homeowners who have had flood control insurance stuffed down their throats by the insurance and banking organizations, then the retailers for new carpeting, flooring, house painting, etc.

The whole point here is preventive action - we wanted the creek cleaned up during the hot spell when there was NO WATER. The PA Utility people are very fast and have great tree shredding equipment - once every two months in the dry spell would have cleared the breakable plants.

Removal of silt during the dry season - push it up the sides to build up the creek walls. You don't need to wait - this can be done now when the current rain dries up.

So I see a bunch of people "waiting" and "planning" what to do to correct the problem after the fact - probably because other people's money will be used for that. It still get pushed down onto the property owners and business owners who are affected.

We pay for flood control in our Santa Clara property tax and think that this should be an ongoing maintenance strategy VS an after the fact massive expenditure of government funds and personal property owner funds.


1 person likes this
Posted by Wateronthebrain
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 2, 2014 at 8:13 am

I understand that local so-called "environmentalists", including some well-known Palo Alto activists who seem to be regarded as almost sacred icons in the political establishment, had a hand in the behind-the-scenes lobbying to scuttle the flood control efforts in service of some pie-in-the-sky vision of restoring the airport and golf course to their pre-European-settlement wetland paradise.


2 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Nov 2, 2014 at 8:56 am

@ Resident 1

"The city does not need permission to bring in one of the many trucks that are over at the landfill and "soccer field" to just run through to clear vegetation on the sides and build up of silt."

Unfortunately, it is not that easy. The permit process is a nightmare, environmental agencies scrutinizing every move, Fish and game,well known Palo Alto activists and so on.

So when your property floods you know who to blame.


Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 2, 2014 at 9:14 am

There is continual movement of dirt in the baylands area - huge trucks are moving through continually and the "soccer field" is one of their destinations. Then there is continual closure of east Bayshore because they are managing the build-up of vegetation by the road. So that same little vegetation clearer goes down the creek when it is dry to clear the vegetation. They do this when there are no fish, no water. It is called preventative care to manage the resources so when the rains come we have made the best case for land management. I think we pay for that in our Santa Clara tax bill and the PA utility bill.


8 people like this
Posted by Finally
a resident of University South
on Nov 2, 2014 at 10:35 am

@ElectionChoice - here's what I could find.

The behind the scenes efforts and back room meetings between the State agency and local opponents have been led by the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge. It's hard to find much information about this group, but I found a link to one of their newsletters here: Web Link

On the last page you can see who their leaders are. It includes Enid Pearson and Emily Renzel, who were also two of the main opponents of Measure E to study composting in Palo Alto, a measure that was overwhelmingly passed by 2/3rds of Palo Alto voters. In the newsletter, Emily Renzel advocates for the delays to the project, saying "We commend multiple regulators for raising considerable concern about the flood project design and note that the ongoing permit process may force changes for both the flood project and the Golf Course."

[Portion removed.]


3 people like this
Posted by FixTheCreek
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 2, 2014 at 2:03 pm

FixTheCreek is a registered user.

I heard the same thing. Ms. Pearson and Renzel are behind the delay and will go to court to keep my property flooding while they push for to quote "pie-in-the-sky vision of restoring the airport and golf course to their pre-European-settlement wetland paradise."

I would add that not every environmentalist in Palo Alto was against the Digester.

[Portion removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 2, 2014 at 2:13 pm

[Post removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by Finally
a resident of University South
on Nov 2, 2014 at 6:29 pm

[Post removed.]




1 person likes this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Nov 2, 2014 at 6:34 pm

[Post removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by Memories
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 2, 2014 at 7:04 pm

[Post removed.]

And for East Palo Alto neighbors: This is a reminder to vote for East Palo Alto council member Ruben Abrica, who is up for re-election. He has been a good leader throughout this labyrinthine process. Continuity is important right now, and this is a crucial issue.


3 people like this
Posted by ElectionChoice
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 2, 2014 at 7:33 pm

@Finally - Brilliant piece of investigative work!

I double checked your money trail, and indeed will vote for those who support flood control. It is frustrating to find groups opposing homeowners and other community victims of the floods.


2 people like this
Posted by StopTheMadness
a resident of another community
on Nov 2, 2014 at 8:07 pm

All of you people saying "I hear that" and "I understand that" enviro groups are the ones responsible for the delay -- where's your hard evidence? It's easy to repeat gossip and unfounded rumors by hiding behind "I heard it from someone."

I've dealt with state agencies before (though not the Water Board) and they don't just meekly agree to do whatever enviro groups, or any special interests, tell them to do. If they forced a delay on this, it was for their own reasons, not because they are the puppets of a couple of elderly ladies.

Honestly, casting Enid Pearson and Emily Renzel as the villains here is ridiculous. You all should be ashamed of yourselves. Those ladies have done amazing things for Palo Alto and don't deserve to be vilified by people just mindlessly repeating whatever unfounded gossip is posted in the comments section.


Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 2, 2014 at 8:13 pm

Everybody already voted by mail. Well, actually 25% as of today.


2 people like this
Posted by ElectionChoice
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 2, 2014 at 8:46 pm

@madness writes:"Honestly, casting Enid Pearson and Emily Renzel as the villains here is ridiculous. "

I'm not casting anyone as a villain. They, themselves make public statements to oppose or delay the flood control.

Does that make them villains? No. Certainly it is no crime to oppose flood control.

But we don't have to vote for those who support such views.

And I won't. I just wish I had known earlier in the election.


2 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Nov 2, 2014 at 8:57 pm

@ Stop the Madness

Oh Please! These two cunning, crafty, old ladies know exactly what they are doing!

They should be ashamed of themselves!




3 people like this
Posted by Bad advice
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 2, 2014 at 9:14 pm

So, Mr. Finally, you suggest voting for the moneyed interests, the people who have a long record of approving overdevelopment, zoning violations, and insufficient parking. You want to continue the downhill slide of our city. Perhaps you enjoy unsafe driving and the backups at intersections.
I don't think that is good advice. unless of course, you are one of the money makers. Then your advice would make sense.


2 people like this
Posted by ElectionChoice
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 2, 2014 at 9:36 pm

Bad Advice - ad hominem atacks are the last resort of those who lack valid arguments.

If I care about flood control for the safety of my property and well being of my family, why shouldn't I vote for the incumbents?

Honestly, I think the city is fine, and if I have to wait a minute at a light, or circle the block to find parking, that is far better than watching my house flood.

So I don't buy your ad-hominem attacks on the incumbents. The city is fine, I had no trouble finding parking downtown whenever I went this last week. I just don't see the logic you offer as reasonable. The incumbents are working on traffic AND on flooding. The residentialist a don't appear so.


Like this comment
Posted by FixTheCreek
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 3, 2014 at 8:04 am

FixTheCreek is a registered user.

I am voting again the incumbent for the water district Schmidt who is Rentals and Pearson ally. Kind of like the fox guarding the henhouse


Like this comment
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 4, 2014 at 11:53 am

Annette is a registered user.

Glad this is at least and at last moving forward. The references above to the truck traffic underscore the importance of having someone coordinating/prioritizing the many projects in the Embarcadero Road/golf course/athletic fields area b/c even w/o the necessary San Francisquito Creek project the trucking activity is intense. I also think this adds to the reasons why the contemplated plan to reduce a section of Embarcadero Road east of 101 to two lanes should be scrapped.

As for the lack of transparency - it's rather ironic that the City of Palo Alto finds that objectionable. Hopefully our City Manager will long remember how unproductive it is to deal with those who are not transparent and how vexing it is to be on the receiving end of that management style.


Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Nov 5, 2014 at 10:59 am

Hmmm is a registered user.

I'm relieved for several reasons that Carlton was defeated last night and that Abrica was re-elected in E. Palo Alto. He provides continuity and context for the myriad happenings - and lack of happenings - with the JPA, flooding issues and the Water Board. He also was a west side resident during the flood in '97, so he also has additional perspective.

So what sort of difference is it likely to make with Schmidt defeated, and was he really causing a problem with moving forward?


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

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