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 [email protected] He also writes periodic blogs at PaloAltoOnline.com.