On Monday, a final 1,400-plus-page document about the environmental impacts of expanding the San Francisquito Creek's capacity to handle major flood events was released. The San Franciscquito Creek Joint Powers Authority could vote and approve the document and proposed flood protection project on Thursday.
The environmental analysis looks at several ways to provide flood protection upstream of West Bayshore Road in East Palo Alto. It ultimately recommended focusing for now on the segment between West Bayshore Road and the Pope-Chaucer Bridge, laying out a plan to replace that bridge, widen the creek downstream of the bridge and replace the parapet extension at the wooden University Avenue Bridge. The project would also expand bike and pedestrian connections and support habitat improvements.
Willows residents Steve Schmidt and Brielle Johnck say they're concerned about the quick turnaround time between the release of the final environmental impact report and when the JPA board is expected to vote on it.
JPA board President Gary Kremen told The Almanac that the vote is not being rushed, arguing that the final report is the same as the draft document released April 26, and that only "some appendixes have been added." If there were significant new information, the document would have had to be recirculated, he stated.
"We've been having seven years of public meetings on this project," he added.
The Stanford piece of the puzzle
Schmidt said he's also concerned that at this point, locals don't understand that this project won't eliminate the requirement for households in the flood plain to continue to buy flood insurance. People can get out of paying flood insurance only if they have "100-year" or "1%" flood protection, or protection against a once-in-a-century storm.
The environmental analysis found that to provide that level of flood protection, floodwater detention basins are needed farther upstream than the Pope-Chaucer Bridge. The creek JPA has determined that all of the potential locations for such basins are on property owned by Stanford University, including portions of the Webb Ranch U-pick field and parking lot and the former site of the Boething plant nursery.
Stanford has also been studying potential projects at the Searsville dam and reservoir for years, but has yet to complete its own environmental analyses for those projects. Yet, as the environmental document states, "property owners at risk downstream have made plain their expectation that flood protection to the 100-year level be completed soon, and that upstream detention is part of that solution."
But without Stanford on board, Schmidt said he's concerned that the JPA will complete all of this work only for flood-plain households to still be stuck paying for insurance.
"My position is that if our goal ... is 1% protection, then Stanford should be integrated into this program, and we should start there. That's more of a guarantee that this goal will actually be reached. Stanford doesn't want to play, and so we're still stuck with flood insurance if we have mortgages," he said.
While the environmental analysis finds that the primary "significant and unavoidable" impact would be construction noise during the project, a number of other agencies and people bring up significant concerns with the proposal.
The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Control Board argues that widening the existing creek, removing some plant life and potentially compacting the creek bed could adversely impact fish, like the steelhead trout known to swim in the creek. The proposed soil nail walls could "increase erosion and degrade the Creek's habitat complexity," writes Keith Lichten, chief of the Water Shed Management Division of the state water resources board.
Pat Samuel of California Trout writes, "The DEIR has no discussion of plans for Searsville Dam, which will determine success or failure of any proposed work downstream." He also argues that the impacts of sea level rise and sediment in the water system were not evaluated, nor were the impacts of future climate change.
Jerry Hearn, longtime environmental leader, also raised questions about how sediment would impact the proposed project.
Other public comments, particularly from Willows residents, expressed support for the project but concern that tree removal be kept to a minimum. They also urged officials to replace the Pope-Chaucer Bridge as quickly as possible.
"We'd like more specifics about how and when construction vehicles and equipment will be moved in and out of the Creek during the bridge replacement project. What measures will be undertaken to ensure that they do not further snarl already heavy traffic through the Willows?" Willows resident Larry Rockwell wrote. "Phase 1 downstream of Highway 101 took considerably longer and cost much more than originally planned. Why is the JPA now confident that this Phase can be completed in 9 months?"
Other households, particularly those that were flooded in 1998, said they favor moving ahead with the project as quickly as possible.
"I urge you to work diligently and with haste to replace the Newell and the Pope Chaucer bridges so that my neighbors and I are all safer," wrote Carolyn Westgaard of Palo Alto. "I live on Saint Francis Drive and my home was flooded by San Francisquito Creek in 1998. At the height of the flood that day, the water was almost four feet deep which profoundly damaged my home and belongings. Many houses in our neighborhood are in jeopardy each winter that passes with the current bridges over San Francisquito in place."
In her email to the JPA, Palo Alto resident Susan Mittmann told the story of how, when her home was flooded in 1998, her toddler daughter didn't really understand what was happening when they moved out of their home to have it repaired in the aftermath of the flood.
"What amazes me most today is that my daughter has now graduated from college, but our community still isn't protecting other kids and families from the loss and trauma of such a flood. We all need to work together to get the job done. All of San Francisquito Creek should have capacity for at least 7,500 cfs (cubic feet per second), ideally with further alternatives available based on upstream detection. This is beyond urgent. This should have been dealt with years ago," she wrote.
The board is set to meet at 3:30 p.m. in the Palo Alto City Council Chambers at 250 Hamilton Ave. in Palo Alto. Board members include Councilman Drew Combs representing Menlo Park, Councilwoman Liz Kniss representing Palo Alto, Councilman Ruben Abrica representing East Palo Alto and Supervisor Dave Pine representing San Mateo County, in addition to Kremen, who represents the Santa Clara Valley Water District.
Access the meeting agenda here.