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Resident: Pope-Chaucer Bridge was one of 'city's biggest mistakes'

The 1940s bridge's small opening, and a realignment of San Francisquito Creek, have caused all the flooding problems

Crescent Park neighborhood resident Tom Rindfleisch was at a conference in Seattle when the call came from his wife at 3 a.m. on Feb. 3, 1998: The San Francisquito Creek had overflowed its banks and their neighborhood was awash in water.

Though the foot-and-a-half of water that flooded Rindfleisch's house was primarily limited to the crawl space, neighbors and other residents in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park did not fare so well, Rindfleisch recalled Friday on "Behind the Headlines," the Palo Alto Weekly webcast.

Since that disaster, Herculean efforts have gone into making sure that the San Francisquito Creek stays contained even during the worst storms, and Rindfleisch has been actively involved in planning for flood control.

Rindfleisch discussed the creek work that's taken place during the past 20 years with Weekly journalists on the webcast -- and the recent release of reports recommending the replacement of two north Palo Alto bridges that span the creek.

Rindfleisch, a retired Stanford senior research scientist, said he's hopeful that the decades of planning might finally pay off. Last week the draft environmental-impact report by the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, the agency governing creek work, recommended the replacement of the Pope-Chaucer Bridge, which connects Menlo Park and Palo Alto.

The bridge, he said, is the source of much of the flooding risk. Built in the 1940s, the structure has only a 16-foot-wide opening, which constricts water flow to about 5,600 cubic feet per second. By contrast, the 1998 flood sent 7,500 cubic feet of water per second down the creek.

A decision to change the path of the creek downstream also contributed to the ongoing flood danger, according to Rindfleisch.

"I think we should not overlook the fact that those interventions really are the cause of why we're here now," he said. "If you take out all of the human contributions, the creek almost without any problem handles the 1998 flood."

He also said that residents in Crescent Park, when they found out that the Pope-Chaucer was the problem, were ready to buy sledgehammers and take it down.

But, he said, that would not have been an effective or ethical solution because, to fix flooding problems along the whole creek, one has to start downstream to ensure there's enough capacity there.

Building the bridge in the first place was one of the city's biggest mistakes, Rindfleisch said.

"If the Pope-Chaucer Bridge had not been there, that means the people who built things (downstream along the creek bank) after the Pope-Chaucer Bridge went in did it to a set of criteria that had very low flow levels," he said.

Rindfleisch praised the Joint Powers Authority's preferred solution, which in addition to replacing the Pope-Chaucer entails widening the creek in five spots.

"This is an extremely good intermediate solution," Rindfleisch said. "And it can be done with reasonable money."

Educating the public about the creek has always been important to Rindfleisch, who with other residents formed a citizens group in 2002 to start looking at what was wrong with the creek and what could be done. He said he took care of primarily the technical studies.

"The more we can do to make the public aware of what the issues are and what the trade offs are, I think the better off we will be," he said.

Rindfleisch complimented JPA Executive Director Len Materman, who was hired in 2008, on the success he's had in pushing the creek work forward. Materman has technical understanding, political skills and perseverance to get the work done, Rindfleisch said.

Hiring him "changed what had been a fairly docile and drifting agency into something that is actually taking action," he said.

Rindfleisch said that if it wasn't for Materman, the public would not have the U.S. Highway 101 to Bay segment of the project, which was completed in December, done by now.

Now that the preferred alternative has been identified, Rindfleisch said it's time to get started on the upstream portion above Middlefield Road and west into the watershed, which will involve Stanford University and its Searsville Dam. As a former member of a Searsville planning committee, he said the university is all in favor of modifying the dam by removing silt and creating a hole that would allow water and fish to flow through. That action would enable the creek to handle what's known as a 100-year flood, which would send more than 8,100 cubic feet of water per second downstream.

The "Behind the Headlines" webcast interview with Rindfleisch is now available on YouTube.com/paweekly/videos, or listen to the podcast at PaloAltoOnline.com/podcasts.

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