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.