A decadeslong regional effort to protect homes from the flood-prone San Francisquito Creek moved ahead Thursday afternoon, when the agency charged with bolstering flood protection approved the environmental study for the next phase of work, including the reconstruction of the Pope-Chaucer Bridge.
By a unanimous vote, the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority board of directors certified the final Environmental Impact Report for what's known as the "Upstream of Highway 101 Project," the second significant effort undertaken by the authority since a February 1998 flood caused severe damage to neighborhoods near the creek in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park.
Years in the planning, the $9 million project has three distinct elements: the replacement of the Pope-Chaucer Bridge; the removal of concrete from the channel in three areas between Newell Road and Euclid Street; and the replacement of a wooden parapet extension at University Avenue and Woodland Avenue.
The upstream project would not, in of itself, protect the area around the San Francisquito Creek from the 100-year event (which has a 1% chance of happening in any given year). It would, however, bolster protection sufficiently to protect the areas from a "70-year flood" of the sort that occurred in 1998. And leaders from the three cities hope they can ultimately achieve 100-year protection through the creation of a detention basin farther upstream, on Stanford University land.
Some residents saw this as a shortcoming. Steve Schmidt, a former Menlo Park mayor who lives in the Willows neighborhood, urged the creek authority to bring the plan up to the 100-year-protection standard.
"My suggestion is that you stop the music and come up with an integrated 100-year plan that includes the upstream retention on Stanford property with their agreement and their commitment to do this," Schmidt said.
For most others, however, the project is long overdue. Thomas Rindfleisch, a resident of Crescent Park, recalled the 1998 flood, which he noted caused $28 million in damage and resulted in about 1,400 homes getting flooded. He called the flood-improvement project "urgent" and a "major step toward protecting the neighborhood."
"We have got to get this project done," Rindfleisch said.
Palo Alto City Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who represents the city on the creek authority board, wholeheartedly agreed and said the flood-control project is a "longtime coming." She also disagreed with those who said the agency should take more time to deliberate. Several residents chafed at the fact that the final version of the document, which contained comments on the draft EIR, didn't get publicly released until Monday (creek authority officials noted that the draft document has been out since the spring and the final document doesn't have any new information, aside from responses to comments).
Kniss noted that it's taken years for the agency to get to this point. She recalled the flood of 1998 and "the effect it had on everyone."
"People were not only devastated, they were angry," Kniss said. "They were angry at us as a city. I think this is our opportunity to say ... 'Finally, after 20 years, we're going to make this a safe place to be.'"
Other members of the board, which includes elected officials from Palo Alto, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and water districts from San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, concurred. Though they acknowledged that the project falls short of the overarching goal — 100-year protection — the benefits of the project are significant. Menlo Park City Councilman Drew Combs, a member of the creek authority, said it would provide protection for hundreds of homes.
"That's what this exercise is about. ... This project alone does provide additional protection for hundreds of homes and this, in of itself, is something of great value," Combs said.
The board's approval of the upstream project comes just months after the creek authority celebrated the completion of its first significant project, which focused on the particularly flood-prone downstream area between the San Francisco Bay and U.S. Highway 101. That project focused on rebuilding levees and widening the channel in the area around East Palo Alto and near the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course, which was redesigned to create space for water runoff.
Palo Alto is also moving ahead now with its own flood-control project: the replacement of Newell Road Bridge. That project, which is now going through the environmental-analysis phase, would need to be completed either before the Pope-Chaucer replacement or concurrently with it to avoid further exacerbating flood risks in the Crescent Park neighborhood.
Despite this potential complication, board members recognized on Thursday the agency's remarkable progress in recent years, both in completing the first phase of the flood-control project last year and in advancing the next one. They characterized it a huge turnaround for the creek authority, which had spent the first two decades of its existence banking on federal funds that never came and formulating plans that never came to fruition. The recent efforts, spearheaded by the creek authority's Executive Director Len Materman, rely on local funding sources and money from the Santa Clara Valley Water District.
East Palo Alto City Councilman Ruben Abrica said the creek authority has been under the impression for a long time that the federal government and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would "come and rescue us."
"I'm so glad that at one point, the JPA made a shift and said, 'Forget the feds.' It's going to be on us to do it collectively," Abrica said.
Now, he said, the creek authority needs to act and assure people that further improvements are coming.
"Yes, we may not be able to do 100-year (protection) now, but we can do 70 years. And 70 years is better than nothing," Abrica said.
The East Palo Alto councilman also said he hopes Stanford will join the effort in the coming years and help the creek authority develop a detention basis. The university, he said, will realize that it also has a "moral, ethical responsibility" to work with the communities in the flood zones. Pat Burt, a former Palo Alto mayor who had previously served on the creek authority board, also noted that Stanford had in the past made verbal commitments to address the flood control issues, including a decade ago, when Palo Alto was in negotiations with Stanford over its proposed (and recently completed) hospitals.
"I think it's in Stanford's interest and in this body's interest to pursue this in collaboration, rather than us exercising our rights of eminent domain and easement on their property," Burt said.