At a community outreach meeting in Palo Alto on April 20, residents of Menlo Park, Palo Alto and East Palo Alto learned that they might never escape FEMA's flood zone designation, prompting further frustration over the flood-protection efforts two decades in the making.
The San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Association (JPA) has been working for 20 years to reduce the risk of flooding of the creek, ever since areas across all three cities were designated as a flood zone in 1997, shortly before San Francisquito flooded in 1998. The JPA consists of three cities along the creek and two local water agencies.
The JPA is focused on replacing the Newell Bridge between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, widening the creek channel, improving the flood walls and, as the last step, replacing the Pope-Chaucer Bridge between Menlo Park and Palo Alto. Construction on the Pope-Chaucer Bridge has to be completed last or the JPA risks causing flooding and damage structures downstream instead of alleviating the issue, as the Pope-Chaucer Bridge acts like a "nozzle" downstream.
Margaret Bruce, executive director of the creek authority, compared construction on the Pope-Chaucer Bridge to taking your thumb off a garden hose.
One resident who moved to his home in 1997, only a few months before FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) designated the area as a flood zone, asked when homeowners might get some relief from the regulations that come with that designation, such as mandatory flood insurance.
Bruce said that residents may not see a change in flood zone designation for a decade, if ever.
"We are faced with climate change," Bruce said. "We are seeing increased variability in precipitation as we design this project. We will do the best we can with what we have to protect the community to the best of our ability, and the goal posts are moving."
To escape the flood zone designation, the JPA would have to prove to FEMA that the current flood zone has a less than a once in 100 years chance of flooding and would have to build concrete floodwalls around the creekbed. The JPA brought this idea to the community when going through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process and it was "soundly rejected," according to Bruce.
Rebecca Eisenberg, an elected representative on the Santa Clara Valley Water District board and director of the San Francisquito Creek JPA, came to the meeting in the final minutes to speak to residents. She reiterated that protection from a once-in-100-years flood was not feasible, despite the JPA's commitment to flood protection.
"I care about you all, but I also care about the environment, and flooding is terrible for the environment," Eisenberg said. "It's awful. It's catastrophic, in addition to people losing everything and losing their homes."
Her reassurances were not well-received by residents. Eisenberg's comments at a March 9 JPA meeting also cause tensions to flare when she wanted to revisit the design of the Newell Bridge, potentially delaying construction.
"People are more important than things," a resident called out at last week's meeting. "Are we waiting for the first person to die? People are more important than the environment."
Eisenberg said that she agreed with the statement but that they can't "keep concreting our way out of this," as climate change increases the size of the flood zone and changes the creek modifications needed to keep the community flood-safe.
There was one tangible accomplishment announced at the meeting: The JPA said there is currently no open litigation over the flood-protection efforts. While there's no guarantee that new legal battles won't emerge, the lawsuits barring the JPA from working on private property have been settled.
The Newell Bridge renovations are currently on a fast track, and the JPA is submitting an application to expedite its permit, which staff expects to receive in September.
The current estimated cost of the Newell Bridge renovations is $15 million, and the JPA is working with Caltrans to secure funding for the project.
To find out if you're in a flood zone, check out the flood map on msc.fema.gov.