Heavy rains rapidly pushed up water levels in the San Francisquito Creek to worrisome volumes on Monday morning as a storm swept through the Midpeninsula before dropping off in the afternoon, but the break won't last long as another storm is expected to descend by Tuesday morning.
Pope-Chaucer Bridge was closed to pedestrians and vehicles as crews from Menlo Park and Palo Alto removed debris from the creek, which passes through both cities. It was reopened as of 5 p.m.
While the rain that has pummeled the region began to abate by 8:30 a.m., a gauge operated by the U.S. Geological Survey showed water levels creeping past 9.5 feet in the upstream area at Stanford University. That is the threshold for triggering the agency's "action stage," which connotes conditions in which jurisdictions are advised to take mitigating actions to protect communities from flood risk.
The USGS defines "minor flood stage" in this location at 11 feet and "major flood stage" at 14 feet. As of 9 a.m., the gauge showed water levels at 9.55 feet. But after peaking at 9.66 feet, water levels dipped to 9.1 feet by 10:30 a.m. and 7.2 feet at 12:15 p.m.
Water also was rising further downstream, near the residential neighborhoods of Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park. As of 9 a.m., Palo Alto's creek monitor at the Pope-Chaucer Bridge showed water rising by about a foot between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. The bridge, which has a capacity of 24 feet, had 16.1 feet of water as of 9:20 a.m. and 14.1 feet of water as of 12:20 p.m.
Palo Alto officials said they believe the channel will accommodate the increasing water flow, according to an update that the city released just after 10 a.m.
"Despite a marked rise in creek levels earlier this morning, the current estimate and observed creek flow predict the highest flow around 10 to 11 a.m. today at a level that will not result in flooding, though staff are actively monitoring conditions," the announcement stated.
In another storm update released at 5 p.m. Monday, the city reiterated that flood risk remains low. Foothills Nature Preserve will be closed on Tuesday due to the inclement weather and crews cleaning up from the recent storms.
The Bay Area got a break from the rain on Monday afternoon before another storm with thunderstorms lands late Monday night and carries over into Tuesday morning, according to the National Weather Service. The region continues to be under a flood advisory through Monday at 7 p.m. due to excessive runoff. A wind advisory has also been issued from 10 p.m. Monday through 4 p.m. Tuesday, during which time southerly winds are forecasted to reach 25-35 mph and gusts can climb up to 60 mph.
Flowing water keeps Palo Alto city crews busy
Before noon at Pope-Chaucer Bridge, a city crew member used a Bobcat bulldozer to remove logs and debris floating downstream before they hit the structure. He lifted them up and deposited them onto the bridge, sometimes picking up a large log just by its end and pulling it onto the bank. The bridge opening was only inches from being completely covered with water. The city crew member deftly maneuvered his Bobcat scoop to capture multiple logs that were under the water.
Oscar Godinez, manager of maintenance operations for the Palo Alto Public Works Department, said that the city had crews working 12-hour shifts around the clock.
"We are trying to catch up with major calls," he said.
Even with last week's storm, the city had localized flooding from too much water in the system; sandbags have been restocked on a regular basis.
Crews lasso logs or pull them out with an excavator until the creeks drop to 13 feet. Until they get that low, they can't get to rocks and logs. Logs are removed when water levels reach 15-16 feet, which is a point when creeks are most at risk. "We've not had rain for so long that the dirt is very soft," Godinez said.
Between the weekend and Monday, the Public Works Department had 38 calls for downed trees. While he worked on-call on Sunday, there were at least 10 calls for blocked storm drains. The blockages were largely leaves across the grates which crews could easily remove, allowing the water to go down easily.
Palo Alto's pumping station has held up well, he said. Because the storm drain system and sewer system are separate, so there's no risk of sewage overflow during a flood. That contrasts with San Francisco and east bay, where the pumping stations were overwhelmed and are believed to have dumped sewage into San Francisco Bay, according to multiple media outlets.
Woodland Avenue in East Palo Alto near the University Circle complex had sandbags set up for at least 100 feet along the creek edge and teams kept a close eye on the rushing water. Woodland was closed at Scofield Avenue throughout the afternoon for crews to remove downed trees before reopening to traffic by the evening.
Residents express worry, frustration
Barbara Coll, a Menlo Park resident who lives on Woodland Avenue, said her home is one of only five that doesn't flood during the storms. She recalled the 1998 flood when she and her neighbors were breaking into the garages of other neighbors who weren't home to rescue their belongings as the flood waters rose.
During the Dec. 31 storm, her neighbors evacuated her cat and moved her all-electric vehicle to safer, higher ground while she was 3,000 miles away at the time. All-electric vehicles such as hers can stop functioning. "If they get 12 inches of water, the electrical system might be completely destroyed and the cars will stop working," she said.
Looking at the rapidly flowing creek late on Monday morning, with its level staying steady at 16 feet, she marveled at the large quantity of water rushing down towards the mouth of the bridge. "I keep waiting for a cow to come floating down," she said.
Menlo Park resident Brian McPhail said he didn't feel the city was ready for the storms. "The storm drains haven't been adequately cleaned for years. It's kind of amazing how many storm drains are plugged."
Richard Phillips, also of Menlo Park, said he felt sorry for people whose houses were flooded by this year's storm. He has lived near the creek for more than 30 years. He recalled seeing salmon in the creek way back when waters were lower. "They were this big," he said as he held out his hands about 18 inches apart.
He doesn't support building high walls along the creek, which would block views and impact wildlife. "This is a wild creek, a lot of wlidlife lives here. I value that more than having to deal with the occasional risks of flooding."
The area used to be a floodplain and The Willows neighborhood used to get flooded, but that has now changed with Palo Alto bearing the brunt of the storms. Phillips offered a philosophical take on the creek's behavior: "This is California. People only complain under two conditions: when it doesn't rain and when it does."
Students return from winter break as planned, despite storms
The Palo Alto Unified School District was similarly optimistic that the storm wouldn't force any disruptions to the school day on Monday, Jan. 9.
The district was staging two school buses outside Duveneck Elementary School — which sits about a quarter mile from the San Francisquito Creek — in case an evacuation became necessary. However, Superintendent Don Austin told this news organization at 11:15 a.m. that after speaking with the city, that didn't appear likely.
"If it started to look like things had taken a bad turn, then we would evacuate the students and staff at Duveneck to Greene Middle School, and that's all in place," Austin said. "We really don't think that's something that's going to happen right now … but we don't want to be caught unprepared, so that's why we're staging the buses."
At 12:30 p.m., Austin told the Weekly that the creek level had begun to drop and that the city had told the district they were in the clear.
If an evacuation did become necessary, Austin said that parents would be given an opportunity to pick their children up and that any students who didn't get a ride home would be taken by bus to Greene.
Elementary school students returned to classes on Monday after winter break. Middle and high schoolers are scheduled to return on Tuesday.
Over the holidays, Duveneck experienced exterior flooding and storm debris, but Austin said there was no significant interior damage. Across the district, there were some roof leaks and small amounts of water coming under doors, Austin said.
District staff, as well as some community volunteers, helped clean up campuses over the break, Austin said. The district also worked on clearing drains to mitigate the impact of future storms.
"Every place that we had control over, we tried to take care of on the front end. We're as prepared as we can be," Austin said. "Some things are going to be out of our control — we can't control the creek or if debris flows in and those kinds of things — but otherwise I think our preparation was really good."
Over at the Silicon Valley International School, a private school with a campus right along the San Francisquito Creek north of U.S. Highway 101, Chief Communications Officer Jovi Olson said that they hadn't seen any impacts from the storm, but have been in contact with the city to prepare in case of flooding.
The school has evacuation plans in place, Olson said, but as of Monday morning, classes were operating normally.
"We're crossing our fingers, but so far we're prepared should anything happen," Olson said.
Creek water levels under close surveillance in Menlo Park
Menlo Park staff are keeping a close eye on water levels at San Francisquito Creek and the Atherton Channel, as well as water flow sensors and rain gauges further upstream, the city said in a storm update issued at 10:30 a.m. The city has set up equipment at Pope-Chaucer Bridge and inspectors are looking at the creek banks to check for erosion and stability.
City staff are monitoring flood levels at three points along the San Francisquito Creek, according to public engagement manager Clay Curtain. These points include the 600 block of Woodland Avenue, the Pope-Chaucer Bridge and the intersection of Woodland Avenue and Middlefield Road.
According to Curtain, local experts say that flooding was not expected on Monday and the water level's peak was likely around 10:30 a.m.
"We know people see the water getting close to the top of the underpass of the bridge and that's really scary, but there's still several more feet before flooding occurs," Curtain said.
The creek along Woodland Avenue and Middlefield Road is several feet below the road as of noon and the levels are not visibly rising though water is moving through at high speeds.
The city of Menlo Park announced Tuesday morning that, despite the continuing rain, the flood risk on the San Francisquito Creek and Atherton Channel was expected to remain low all day.
Menlo Park residents in need of sandbags can find them at the Burgess Park parking lot at Alma Street and Burgess Drive and Menlo Park Fire Station 77 at 1467 Chilco St. There is also a temporary pop-up station at Pope Street Island at 222 Laurel Ave.
The city of Palo Alto is operating four free sandbag filling stations located at the corner of Palo Alto Avenue and Chaucer Street; the Rinconada Tennis Courts at the corner of Newell Road and Hopkins Avenue; Mitchell Park at 600 E. Meadow Drive; and the Palo Alto Airport Terminal at 1925 Embarcadero Road. Residents are being asked to save their sandbags for possible use in the coming days.
The flood-prone bridge was last filled to capacity during the Dec. 31 storm, which forced water to spill out of the channel in areas around the bridge, flooding streets and damaging some properties in the flood zone near the bridge. A break in the weather that day prompted the water levels to subside shortly thereafter, averting the type of catastrophic flood damage that area residents had experienced during the February 1998 flood, which remains the biggest on record.
This story will be updated as more information becomes available.