Guest opinion: Flood-protection delay continues threat of a 'mini-New Orleans' calamity


Seemingly endless delays in approval of a $37.5 million flood-control project for the San Francisquito Creek may at last be ending, but the timing will cause at least a full year's delay in completing the potentially lifesaving project.

That means that a significant threat to several hundred homes in East Palo Alto continues another winter season. That threat is real and potentially deadly if there were to be a sudden failure in the so-called levees that line the creek channel. (So-called because they are simply piled-up mud and already leak.)

If there were a collapse, 8 to 10 feet of water would whoosh instantly into the Gardens neighborhood of mostly single-story residences, catching hundreds in their homes and vehicles. Estimates are that the water would flood 300 to 400 homes in deep water.

In February 2006 the Weekly condemned the drying up of federal funding to continue a detailed Army Corps of Engineers study of the creek's flood potential and what could be done; the Bush administration diverted the $7 million to the Homeland Security anti-terrorism effort.

The Weekly cited the potential risk, with the headline, "A mini-New Orleans local flood threat?" That editorial reportedly helped break loose funding for the study, due largely to the vivid images of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans the year before.

Very little has changed in terms of local flood threat in the past eight years. That is not due to lack of trying on the part of local cities, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties and the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, commonly known as the "Creek JPA." The JPA is a joint effort of Palo Alto, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and the two counties.

Under Executive Director Len Materman, the JPA has developed an extensive plan to improve the creek flow so it could handle the proverbial "100-year flood" meaning a flood that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year.

The plan was submitted to the state's Regional Water Quality Control Board about 21 months ago, but only earlier this month did the board certify the application as complete. The certification came only after local officials and citizens pummeled the board for the delays and adding items peripheral to water quality, its primary responsibility.

A special meeting of several water board members on Oct. 31 resulted in what was reported as a "breakthrough" by the water board. It was followed up by a letter confirming the certification of the application as complete.

That certification means the Army Corps of Engineers can resume its delayed review, along with the state Fish & Wildlife agency and others. The federal government was writing a permit last February, but halted work after the water board refused to move forward: That work can now resume, in theory.

In a letter responding to a water board denial, the JPA provided a succinct summary of the project: It will "provide thousands of residents and business owners, as well as public facilities, with 100-year creek flood protection during an extreme tide occurring with over two feet of projected Sea Level Rise in an area subject to both Creek and Bay tidal flooding.

"It will improve the quality of water reaching the Bay because stormwater will flow over a new in-channel marsh rather than over streets and through homes and businesses.

"It enables PG&E to construct a safer gas-transmission line farther from East Palo Alto homes.

"And this self-mitigating restoration Project creates more acres of wetlands than it impacts, and the new wetlands will be of higher quality and are more consistent with historic conditions than the wetlands being impacted."

Materman noted that an independent consultant corroborated the JPA's analysis, and there were months of technical analysis and meetings required by the water board staff.

But his frustration surfaced in plain language. In a cover letter to the water board Executive Officer Bruce Wolfe, Materman wrote: "You said Certification could happen in late August 2014.

"In good faith, on July 31, 2014, we sent you the Revised Application that you had requested, which was 926 pages in length and included all of the materials needed for you to take action to approve the project.

"Two weeks later, you scheduled a public workshop with your Board on our Project that lasted 4 1/2 hours. Dozens of local residents and elected community leaders traveled to Oakland to express their desire for the Project to move forward. After hearing from the public, your Board members asked you to handle the permit administratively rather than bring it back to the Board in order to save time.

"Your response came two weeks later in the Letter of Incomplete."

Materman said he is encouraged by the certification this month, but remains concerned about potential conditions that the water-board staff might attach.

And even if all permits proceed smoothly from now on, the potential damage may have been done. Some work has already begun, such as dirt being stored at the Palo Alto Golf Course and PG&E relocating some poles out of the way.

Materman is far from alone in his frustration. City and county officials and a variety of residents in flood-prone areas of Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto have expressed degrees of outrage at the delay and perceived adding on of conditions and a lack of transparency on the part of the water-board staff.

There is some talk, even by environmentalists who have had frustrating dealings with the water board, of reforming the overall approval process to better coordinate review processes for future water- and wildlife-related projects. That could be something like a little-known item called the Joint Aquatic Resource Permit Application Process, or JARPA, but with real teeth.

Some of those looking at some type of reform attended a Halloween Day meeting of the board, but they only watched, waiting.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at He also writes periodic blogs at

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1 person likes this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 29, 2014 at 11:54 am

This is what you get when you put a bunch of ultra-environmentalists in charge. Some of these folks do not have much in the way of real world experience. Also I might add, be careful who you put in charge, even if it seems the most benign, harmless, position, it might come back to bite you.

5 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 29, 2014 at 1:40 pm

While everyone who lives near/around the San Francisquito Creek is doubtless frustrated by any and all delays in getting work started in mitigating any possible damage from a overflow of the creek, or a collapse in the levees—claiming that a “mini-New Orleans” is just around the corner is absurd. This sort of sensationalism gives legitimate journalism a bad name.

Perhaps local journalists want to actually help their readers—they might actually investigate the nature of these delays. For instance, the are perhaps 25 local/county/state/federal agencies involved in oversight of this mostly dry creek. WHY? Why are there so many people involved in managing/restricting and delaying work that would ultimately keep people and property safe? Finding out what issues have been delaying this project other than “sign offs” would be of far more value to us than this not very informative bit of “journalism”.

The previous poster suggests that “environmentalism” has been the spanner in the works. Well, is that true? Perhaps requesting all of the emails and paper memos of key members of the team in charge of permitting this project would be a great place to start to see just how much of the delays can be attributed to this often counter-productive mindset.

Let’s hope this project is actually what is needed, and that this creek problem for this segment of the creek is finally solved.

Like this comment
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 29, 2014 at 5:02 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

Doesn't it have to rain before we worry about floods? Rain, I mean heavy, consistent rain, not 5 minute pitiful drizzle or mist, is a disappearing event in California, perhaps never to return, so I wouldn't be too worried about floods at this stage.

5 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 29, 2014 at 6:11 pm

@ Mauricio

Just wait, it will rain, if not this year, next year.

4 people like this
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 29, 2014 at 7:17 pm

@mauricio - the creek was close to overflowing 2 years ago, in the depths of the drought. The yearly rain is irrelevant, you just need one storm on one day.

3 people like this
Posted by Flooded Homeowner
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Nov 30, 2014 at 7:51 am

East Palo Alto residents have a simple way to explain the problem: Walk on the Bayland levees and look back at our houses. Anyone can see the rooftops. If the height of your body plus the height of the cracked, leaking levees puts you above the rooftops, then the streets must be BELOW the water level, especially during high tides and heavy runoff from the foothills.

The water does not go OVER the levees-- it flows through the holes and cracks as the swollen creek winds around the neighborhoods. Flooding is most likely December, January and February when tides are especially high and this high water fills the creeks. If we have significant runoff from foothills and paved areas, the added water creates a flood into the neighborhoods. The water can rise a few inches every hour. One minute we are okay... the next minute, a backlog of water is rushing through the cracked levees and into the homes.

Spend a morning during rush hour near one of the few streets that East Palo Alto residents would use to evacuate: East Bayshore Road, University Ave, Embarcadero. We cannot move quickly during a normal morning commute on a weekday in clear weather. There is simply no way to evacuate the neighborhoods at night on a holiday with flooded streets, like when we had our flood in late December, 2012.

Foothills and flatland neighbors can help prevent flooding by allowing as much water as possible to absorb into the ground before it runs into creeks, and keeping the early rains flowing easily into the storm drains to smooth out the flow during a rainy day. You can also help watch the creeks and communicate with emergency response volunteers.

Longer term, we need a much better permitting process. Thank you, Jay, for explaining the situation so clearly!

3 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 30, 2014 at 11:08 pm

The creek originates from the Searsville Lake that is in the Jasper Ridge / Stanford Preserve. Lack of maintenance of the build up of silt and the dam at that location is part of the problem. The problem needs to be addressed from top to bottom as part of the flooding is due to the amount of silt going down stream and dead vegetation blocking up at the bridges due to lack of maintenance of overgrowth in the creek. High tides in a storm create a confluence of rain water moving downstream and bay water moving upstream.
I have seen water coming up in the street drain due to this problem.
The lower portion needs to be dredged to deepen and clean the lower section so that water can effectively move out into the bay instead of backing up in the baylands.
Please address the whole problem form top to bottom.

5 people like this
Posted by 1998 Redux
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 1, 2014 at 1:18 pm

This is February 1998 waiting to haunt us, when we had to leave work to sandbag our homes. Then we had homes that smelled of mud for two years after.

The city swore then that they would not let this happen again: would improve drainage all over town, esp near Greer Park and in Crescent Park; would regularly clean storm drains, sweep streets, etc, etc, etc.

None of this occurred after 2001. City suffers from memory loss.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 1, 2014 at 2:16 pm

@ 1998: not necessarily true. The city has improved the storm drain system in certain parts of town, including the main line that goes down Channing to the bay. And the streets are swept weekly...

2 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 3, 2014 at 11:55 am

@ Mauricio

How is your prediction now, regarding rainfall?

3 people like this
Posted by Well, then
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2014 at 5:12 pm

I seem to recall reading in the PA Daily Post, less than two months ago, that the CPA Utilities Dept was denying that this would be an El Niño year--despite what scientists and meteorologists at the U.S. Weather Bureau had predicted.

I also recall getting a letter in the mail from the CPAUD stating that they would most definitely NOT be raising our water rates this year. Then, VOILA!, we get an increase in water rates barely six weeks later.

What is up with denials and deception? Obviously, CPAUD has some dementia issues in regard to for whom they work!

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

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