Massive flood-control project in the Palo Alto Baylands kicks off

Momentous groundbreaking signals beginning of the end of flooding for local residents

Eighty years after the enactment of the federal Flood Control Act, a decades-in-the-making flood-protection effort on San Francisquito Creek is finally underway.

On Friday, Aug. 5, officials from the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority (SFJPA) and numerous public officials gathered for a groundbreaking ceremony on top of a levee in East Palo Alto to celebrate getting the first phase of a massive project started.

The vantage point provided a sobering backdrop to the morning's event: from atop the levee, one looked down at the nearby rooftops of East Palo Alto residents. In a 100-year flood event, all of those roofs could be under water, and residents might have little or no chance to escape, said members of the SFJPA, which is managing the project.

But Friday's groundbreaking signaled the beginning of the end of flood woes for residents. The $41.35 million project's first phase, the Bay to U.S. Highway 101 segment, will protect 5,700 homes and businesses in East Palo Alto and parts of East Menlo Park and Palo Alto from a high-water flow that includes an extreme tide with more than two feet of sea-level rise, a so-called 100-year event, SFJPA Executive Director Len Materman said.

The project includes new flood walls near private property constraining the channel, widening the creek by building a new levee through the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course, rebuilding the existing levee adjacent to East Palo Alto homes and excavating decades of sediment that has built up in the channel. Most of the work will take place from June through January 2017 to protect endangered species living in the area. The work is scheduled to be completed in 2018.

The project is the first of two. The second project, the Upstream of Highway 101 segment, would follow, with potential bridge replacements, channel widening and construction of an upstream floodwater detention basin, underground bypass or flood walls. A draft Environmental Impact Report for this phase is scheduled for release and public comment in 2017.

Gary Kremen, director of the Santa Clara Valley Water District Board, summed up the long years of waiting and the hard work with one word: "Finally."

San Francisquito Creek's potential to cause damaging and life-taking floods has been recognized since 1941, when Congress authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to study the creek, said Paul Beck, legislative counsel for U.S. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo. But in the intervening decades, little had been done to fix the situation, which only became more dangerous after decades of altering the channel and the addition of thousands more residents.

Flood control became an imperative for local governments following the devastating 1998 flood that damaged parts of Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. In 1998, officials of East Palo Alto, Palo Alto, Menlo Park and the Santa Clara Valley Water District and San Mateo County Flood Control District formed the Joint Powers Authority (JPA) to work collaboratively on a solution to the flooding -- one that would not improve the situation for one community while worsening it for another.

Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt, a member of the JPA board of directors, said that the project finally came to fruition after the JPA began to recalibrate its approach eight years ago. From 1998 to 2006, the approach was primarily pursuing principal funding sources.

But a project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stalled, and when funding fell through, JPA members and state and local officials worked to secure local financial resources to take on the first phase of the flood-control project, the Bay to Highway 101 segment.

Nervous residents and public officials again received a reminder of the creek's destructive powers in December 2012. Rushing upstream water pounded the levee in East Palo Alto, causing damage that threatened to inundate the adjacent neighborhood and flooding some Palo Alto streets when water came up through storm drains.

Then-East Palo Alto Mayor Ruben Abrica scrambled to secure state emergency funds to repair the levee and portions of Woodland Avenue beside the creek.

Now the project is the first in the country to address 100-year flood protection with sea-level rise, and it is a model for other projects, Burt said.

Abrica, who sits on the JPA board, said he has a feeling of deep satisfaction that some of the wrongs done to the creek over the decades, with its re-engineering and dirt-pile levees made by farmers who wanted to used the creek water, will be corrected.

"Most of my life in East Palo Alto I have lived near the creek. I came to appreciate the creek. We are a coastal city and we get a different perspective," he said.

The project "is a sign of friendship to the creek." In a way, the flood-control project is returning some of the control back to the creek, he said. It's a way of saying, "this is your land; this is something you used to use to get to the bay," Abrica said.

One of the major stumbling blocks involved is how to protect the endangered Ridgway's rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse and other threatened and endangered species.

Anne Morkill of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex, said the project represents a paradigm shift of ecosystem and flood-control restoration.

"The (bay) has lost 90 percent of its wetlands here, and the goal is to bring back 100,000 acres of marshland," Morkill said.

"Through discussion we came up with a win-win situation" that protects the endangered species habitat and people, she added.

For Palo Alto resident Tom Rindfleisch, whose Crescent Park yard was flooded in 1998, the project is "a dream come true."

He and resident Stephen Monasmith created a model and analyzed the creek's problems, working two years on a plan that helped create some of the fixes that will be used today.

"There were lots of times I felt discouraged. But the JPA leadership and its new members created a sea change," he said.

Louella Parker of East Palo Alto had to leave her home in 1998, after someone knocked on her door and told her to evacuate. But the water was already rising, with the intersections of Wisteria Drive at O'Connor and Sage streets flooding. Parker was not sure she could get out, her husband, Dennis Parker, said.

The couple self-evacuated in 2012 after Dennis Parker, who was watching the water level rise on the online creek monitor, saw that the water was so high the monitor was no longer functioning. When they arrived at East Palo Alto City Hall at the Red Cross shelter, people were coming in with their pant legs soaked to their knees, he said.

"It was a wake-up call," he said. But all of the years of hard work organizing and petitioning have paid off.

"I never would've imagined that two counties and three cities and water districts could act together and get something done," he said.


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4 people like this
Posted by Keith Peters
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 6, 2016 at 9:54 am

Keith Peters is a registered user.

For all of us living in a "Flood Zone", will these fixes mean we can finally stop throwing away money on a yearly basis for flood insurance? Palo Alto has had two major floods in the last 65 years. On neither occasion did water get close to damaging anything. Had the counties dredged the creek east of 101 and built a retaining wall on top of the levee closest to East Palo Alto, that city never would have flooded back in 1998. As anyone who has lived in the area for any length of time, it rarely rains enough to create a flooding situation. All these plans (and money) are based on a once-in-a-lifetime event that probably will never happen.

2 people like this
Posted by Keith Peters
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 6, 2016 at 9:57 am

Keith Peters is a registered user.

As a clarification, in Palo Alto's two big floods, water didn't damage either of our houses in the flood zone. There was some flooding on St. Francis Avenue and lower-lying areas near the east end of Oregon Expressway, but not from creeks overflowing. The sewers actually flooded.

4 people like this
Posted by Of couse
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 6, 2016 at 10:41 am

But Keith, they need as many ways to spend our money as possible

7 people like this
Posted by FEMA alternative
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 6, 2016 at 1:38 pm

For those of you purchasing FEMA flood insurance, you should check into private flood insurance. My mortgage is with Wells Fargo and they happily accepted the private flood insurance, which is hundreds of dollars cheaper per year and provides higher coverage.

34 people like this
Posted by MikeCrescentPark
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 6, 2016 at 1:57 pm

The posts above are grossly uninformed regarding the opinion this is a non issue. I'm sure a number of people in the neighborhoods affected by the 98 flood will respond here to let you know.

The City of Palo Alto paid a multi million dollar settlement to a group of homeowners for ignoring this problem for years. And foot dragging by many groups including the Sant Clar Water Board have added numerous complications including the nightmare bride project affecting 101 right now. But for them it could have been done when the major roadwork was done a few years ago.

35 people like this
Posted by Maurice Druzin
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 6, 2016 at 2:02 pm

I am not sure where the people in the flood zone are located, but their dismissive comments ignores the fact that many homes were flooded in 1998, with major disruption and displacement of families.
We were flooded , and out of our house for 3 months. Incredibly traumatic experience for our family of 5, 3 children and a grandparent.
The flood zone map was very accurate, and we were happy to have flood insurance
2012 was very close, and there have been a few other close calls
We live in fear every winter, so there is a real danger.
This project is long overdue , so have some compassion for the many families disrupted in 1998

39 people like this
Posted by Tom Rindfleisch
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 6, 2016 at 2:10 pm

Since Mr. Peters lives in Midtown, he was not affected by the 1998 San Francisquito Creek flood and may not know the facts of that flood. Around 1700 homes were damaged; southbound Hwy 101 was closed for 3 days; the low area around Hwy 101 and Oregon Expwy was under water for a week; and damages mounted to $28M. You can see a Santa Clara Water District video taken the day after the flood (which hit around 3:00 AM) at Web Link. That video only shows the areas around Hwy 101, but there was extensive damage upstream as far as the Pope-Chaucer bridge. Some Crescent Park homes in the low spots in the terrain had 3-4 ft of water .

A 100-yr flood map prepared by the Army Corps of Engineers shows the extent of the flooded areas -- see Web Link. The blue area is more extensive for a 100-year flow, but the 1998 flood (~50-yr flow) hit pretty much the same areas on the Palo Alto side, except those around the Middlefield bridge which are only affected by higher flows than the 7200 cfs in 1998.

Funding for the SFC upgrade projects comes from federal, state, and local sources (San Mateo County, Santa Clara County, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, and Palo Alto). These projects have gone through more than a decade of public hearings, planning, and extensive permit proceedings. Your objections could/should have been expressed sometime during this process.

Tom Rindfleisch

36 people like this
Posted by Ducatigirl
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 6, 2016 at 2:29 pm

Ducatigirl is a registered user.

In 1998, my then-16-yr-old son had a girlfriend, who lived with her parents on Hale, in Crescent Park. Their house was flooded four feet deep in water from the creek in February of 1998. It took a year to get Reid of the smell of mud in that house.

One of my son's friends, who lived near Greer Park, had his house and neighborhood flooded. His mini- truck was in the garage, and filled with amplifiers and drums for his band at the time. The water was so high it got into the truck and ruined not only the truck but all of the band equipment.

A neighbor down the street from us was in the process of adding a new wing to their home and expanding their basement. Water seeped in from the rapidly rising aquifer and flooded the entire basement. Toxic mold quickly formed on the first floor.

Yet another home of friends, east of Middlefield, had to be gutted because the Chinese drywall the contractor installed, when they remodeled inside and out, soaked up so much floodwater it could not dry out. All of the Chinese drywall, all the way up to the second floor, developed toxic black mold. They could not return to their house for nearly two years!

Another friend, who rented a house on Pope St in Menlo Park, was flooded out of his house and could not return until June of that year.

Two of our friends told us that their insurance companies were referring to this as a "100-year flood", but that they were warned that 100-year floods were now occurring every 25 years or so, due to global warming.

Also, the neighbors' house with the badly flooded basement was NOT even in a flood zone!

24 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 6, 2016 at 4:11 pm

jh is a registered user.

No one is mentioning the massive flood in the 1950's that flooded all the way to Middlefield, including mid-town. The bay's original marshland until it was filled in down to the current shore. The days when the land under the bay was sold as private lots for infill and building!

Like this comment
Posted by Patrick Burt
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 6, 2016 at 5:49 pm

Patrick Burt is a registered user.

I think when you spoke about an agency adding complications you may have meant the Regional Water Quality Control Board when you referred to the Santa Clara Water Board. The Santa Clara Valley Water District has been our leading partner on this project and they have provided the vast majority of the funding. They do not have regulatory authority. Also, the 101 project has been an inconvenience for all of us, but it is a critical part of the project that expands water capacity under 101 and under East and West Bayshore roads. 101 is actually the most flood prone segment of the creek. That expensive segement is being funded by Caltrans and resulting greatly from the support of then State Senator Simitian. We are grateful for their support. Without that funding we would not have been able to achieve our total project.

17 people like this
Posted by MikeCrescentPark
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 6, 2016 at 6:17 pm

Yes- it was the Regional Water Control Board I meant to reference. Not the Santa Clara Water District. The RWCB delayed and then changed its mind during the course of getting approvals causing the work that is currently being done on 101 to miss the window when the other major highway work was done over the course of several years.

So the net has been not only delays in getting crucial capacity added under 101, but the traffic nightmare at that spot has been extended years longer that would have been if approvals had been made in a more timely manner.

The result will be in total more than six years of construction congestion on our segment including the former work completed a few years ago.

17 people like this
Posted by Beware
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 6, 2016 at 7:44 pm

Once needed flood control is achieved in Palo Alto
in 2018 unless the City Council steps up and restricts dewatering for basement construction a new huge residential area, previously protected
by FEMA restrictions, will be opened up. Spec builders, local developers and architects, realtors, all are waiting to profit from this. This is another reason why the Council election this Nov is so important. The stakes are high.
We have even more to lose here.

18 people like this
Posted by Hamilton Hitchings
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 7, 2016 at 9:55 am

Hamilton Hitchings is a registered user.

Great news and so glad East Palo Alto is getting the flood protection they need! Now we need to Newell St and Chaucer bridges fixes so Palo Alto can get flood protection from San Francisquito Creek so we don't have a repeat of 1998 where over 400 houses had over the floor flooding.

3 people like this
Posted by Patrick Burt
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 7, 2016 at 11:34 am

The RWQCB took over two years to approve our permit for this downstream of 101 project. However, those delays did not impact the 101 and East/West Bayshore road construction and it was not delayed.
@Hamilton Hitchings
We will soon begin the Environmental Impact Analysis to evaluate impacts of alternatives for 100 year protection for the upstream of 101 section. We have most of the funding in hand to provide 50 year flood protection for this stretch. 50 protection year would protect us from an event the size of the 1998 storm and involves replacement of the old bridges as well as expanding capacity at key choke points.

15 people like this
Posted by Sue Allen
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 8, 2016 at 10:32 am

I am so glad this is happening to protect the residents of East Palo Alto. But, I'll bet the section west of 101 won't happen for another decade or two. Residents in Palo Alto will fight any 'taming' of San Francisquito Creek. They prefer the 'natural' creek bed. I live by Adobe Creek and am grateful that the channel was widened and deepened 15 or 20 years ago. We've not been flooded since -- not even in 1998 flood.

I drove my daughter up Alma St. to Paly for swim team at 6 a.m. that day. The underpasses at Oregon and Embarcadero were both full of water nearly to the top. I stood outside the pool area to tell parents to pick up their kids after swim practice because school was canceled. My husband is on the city and school district emergency response teams, so we'd gotten the call about 4 a.m. Some schools were underwater, and teachers who commute in couldn't get off the freeway at Oregon/Embarcadero because of flood waters.

13 people like this
Posted by Arthur Keller
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 8, 2016 at 10:37 am

This is indeed great news and progress. During the 1998 flooding I helped pump out a basement with 3 feet of water on Forest Avenue by acquiring and installing the last water pump that a local hardware store had.

The San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority (JPA) did a successful pivot to get us to this stage.

The JPA also initiated a study of tidal flooding with the SAFER Bay project. Palo Alto officials were planning not to participate as they were waiting for the South Bay Shoreline Study eventually to get around to our part of the bay. In 2014, I got the Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC) in its review of the Capital Improvement Program (CIP) Budget to add funding for participate in the JPA's SAFER Bay project. In 2015, after I had left the PTC, I got funding approved for the EIR preparation, which staff had left off of the CIP again.

Now a year later, the JPA's website (Web Link) reads, without mention of the status of tidal flood protection for Palo Alto:

"Feasibility study drafted

"Our Strategy to Advance Flood protection, Ecosystems and Recreation along the Bay (SAFER Bay) project is underway. We are looking at different alignments of infrastructure alternatives to protect Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, and Palo Alto against extreme tides with Sea Level Rise, and working with other agencies to improve shoreline habitat and enhance the Bay Trail.

"By August 30, we intend to begin presenting our recommended alternatives for the Menlo Park and East Palo Alto portions of the project at City Council meetings in those cities. Then, we will begin to design and develop an EIR of the alternatives. Our study of the feasible alternatives to protect Palo Alto from Bay flooding is also underway and will be completed this fall. To learn more about the project, please contact us and see a March 5, 2014 weekly Almanac cover story on this project."

So I ask about the status of Palo Alto's participation in the SAFER Bay project to address tidal flooding affecting over 2000 homes in Palo Alto. I've inquired but haven't heard any response.

10 people like this
Posted by Arthur Keller
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 8, 2016 at 10:43 am

I didn't get a response to my inquiries, but it looks like the JPA did add about a study of Palo Alto tidal flooding to be completed this fall.

11 people like this
Posted by ItIsARisk
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 8, 2016 at 1:09 pm

Hello? Anyone listening?
If you live in a flood zone, then you run the risk of being flooded.
The government does not have an obligation to "do anything and everything possible" to prevent your residence from being flooded. If you want to live there, then you *must* assume some of the risk. So purchase adequate insurance. And be prepared to live with the consequences. It is the same as moving into a house in the landing path of an existing airport - don't complain about the noise! Same goes for earthquakes. The Big One is GOING TO HAPPEN. No government can prevent it nor will they be able to predict it accurately. And it could be when you are living here.

10 people like this
Posted by stella
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2016 at 3:13 pm

It is only obvious that some residents that were not affected should feel this is a waste of money. But i assure you if you were randomly flooded as my Eichler Greer Park neighborhood was, you would not be saying these things. Floods are random unfortunately, some houses are hit while others are spared, lucky for them. My neighborhood had 3 feet of water run through it like a silted river and $100K of damage. This is a God send to finally get this bayland at Bay to protect our homes and hopefully bring our Flood Insurance down. I too felt i had wasted my $$ until the flood hit, then I was so thankful I had it. Every winter when it rains i do not sleep well and have an evacuation plan and my 4-wheel drive ready packed to escape, i really hate the torential rains for this reason alone. Once you have lived the flood you never, never want to relive it again. I had shoveled sand w other older residents who had let their flood insurance go as they had paid up their mortgage and the bank doesn't mandate them pay flood insurance, but this one 70+ resident now had to pay for his own $100K repairs, with very little help from FEMA. So thank Heaven for this Bayland Flood Project

11 people like this
Posted by Carla Talbott
a resident of another community
on Aug 8, 2016 at 6:54 pm

I am BOILING MAD after reading this by Keith Peters: "Palo Alto has had two major floods in the last 65 years. On neither occasion did water get close to damaging anything." WTF?? We were flooded out of our house in the middle of the night and had to be taken out by neighbors with a row boat! The water outside was up to my waist (I was 5'8") and we had over 2 ft. in our house. We were out of our house for many months. We had to rent a house in Mountain View, paying rent plus house payment. Two of our cats refused to be caught so we had to go feel them back at our house every day. We were both working with demanding tech jobs at the time. Yes we had FEMA but that was only for the footprint of the house and then was pretty limited in coverage. We lost furniture, carpets and lots of indoor stuff that wasn't covered by FEMA. We lost fencing around our odd-shaped 1/4 acre lot, aluminum shed, all of our Earthquake supplies stored in plastic garbage cans outdoors. The mud and silt that were dropped by the flood waters at our "lowest in Palo Alto" spot stunk to high heaven and contained all kinds of filth and contaminates. It was extremely traumatic and unbelievably expensive. The work involved in the clean up was extensive and done in the freezing cold of February. In fact, we never really recovered from it, neither financially or emotionally. It was a life-changing event. I'll never forget seeing all my water and mud-soaked furnishing being scooped up by a back hoe and dumped into a big dump truck along with that of our neighbors. More bad luck piled on the next few years until the financial debacle of 2008, when the bursting Housing, Tech and Stock Market bubbles, each of which affected us greatly, literally drove us out of Palo Alto and California altogether. We relocated up here in McMinnville, Oregon in 08, nowhere near a flood zone! Keith Peters should learn more about the impact of that flood to prevent making a big fool of himself again with Palo Alto residents, and former residents. Right now I am sorry I can't rub his nose in some of that putrid mud from the 08 flood!

6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 9, 2016 at 12:07 am

@ Pat Burt

So that pile of dirt, that never passed spec, is ok to be used for the levy?

Did you guys ever read the contract? it stated that the levy should meet a certain spec. Does 3/4 minus ring a bell? Or was it the $1,000,000 dump fee, that Arrillaga gave the city,in order to turn a blind eye? Which side are you on?

P.S. the contract stated that the soil had to meet a certain specification,, this was NEVER achieved. Their needs to be an investigation, followed by an audit.

6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 9, 2016 at 12:15 am

Or an audit, followed by an investigation....What ever happened to the contract with Tucker?

Some heads need to roll.

1 person likes this
Posted by Jim
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 9, 2016 at 1:52 pm

Carla Talbott.....chill. There are a lot of homes listed in the flood zone that are nearly exempt from being excluded. I think that's the point of some of these comments, that some of us don't need to waste money on flood insurance. Of course some of you were flooded out, but your flood policies didn't cover much, like anything on the floor. You can count the number of big floods in Palo Alto in the last 100 years or more on one hand. I live in an area where any flood water would wash into apartments behind us before ever reaching our front door. Yet, we probably pay the same price for flood insurance that those pay who suffered damage in 1998. Bottom line, flood insurance for many of us is throwing money away for all the good is does. Residents in the flood zone should be given the opportunity to have it or not. Once all these flood projects are done, will we still be paying for flood insurance? Why? Aren't these projects being done to prevent flooding? Also, Matadero Creek still hasn't been completely cemented in between Greer and the frontage road. Why?

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

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