Reassessing San Francisquito Creek

Publication Date: Wednesday Feb 11, 1998

Reassessing San Francisquito Creek

Preliminary report examines options for flood protection

Dynamite Chaucer Street bridge? Line the banks of San Francisquito Creek with concrete? Construct levees and flood walls between Chaucer Street and Highway 101?

These are just a few of the suggestions that have been heard in Palo Alto since San Francisquito Creek breached its banks last Monday night in four places--at Byron Street, Seneca Street, University Avenue and Highway 101--leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.

In the struggle between mankind and Mother Nature, there is no doubt who held the upper hand last Tuesday morning. Up to 7,100 cubic feet of water per second raced along the creek at the height of the storm, a record-high flow, according to U.S. Geological Survey measurements made at the Stanford Golf Course. That's up to 22 percent faster than speeds measured during 1955's record floods, according to the creek's "stream-keeper," Jim Johnson, who works for the Peninsula Conservation Center.

Crews from Menlo Park and Palo Alto worked around the clock last week to shore up the damaged banks of the creek with rocks and pull debris from the water before the next storm set in.

But patching up the problems may not be a sufficient solution. According to Johnson, an in-depth hydrological study is the only way that authorities can begin to solve the creek's problems.

"Even without the bridges, the creek doesn't have enough capacity to channel the water," said Johnson. "You could bulldoze the channel twice as wide, but we want to look for a solution to control the natural habitat."

For 18 months, Johnson and the nonprofit Peninsula Conservation Center have worked together with technicians from Santa Clara Valley Water District and San Mateo County to assess the alternatives for flood management along the San Francisquito Creek.

Last week, the Peninsula Conservation Center Foundation released the preliminary results of the report while the dangers of flooding were still fresh in people's minds.

"We want to give people some idea of how flood damage can be prevented, while still maintaining the natural habitat of the creek," said Pat Showalter, who coordinates the creek project.

The report does not recommend any one specific alternative, but describes and evaluates many of the flood mitigation alternatives that have been discussed over the last 50 years.

"Our report identifies nine alternatives that provide flood protection without concreting the channel," said Showalter. "Concrete is no longer an acceptable way to prevent flood damage."

Some of the alternatives examined are:

Diverting water from the creek into temporary off-stream storage downstream of El Camino Real during storms.

Expanding Searsville Lake.

Creating a flood control dam upstream of Interstate 280.

Diverting water into an underground conduit upstream of Middlefield Road under Willow Road during storms.

Constructing levees and flood walls between Chaucer Street and Highway 101, which would affect 107 creekside properties.

Deepening the channel between El Camino Real and Highway 101, lining it with concrete, and replacing bridges at Middlefield Road and Chaucer Street.

Environmentalists and residents along the San Francisquito Creek have resisted upsetting the natural ecosystem of the creek. One of the last steelhead trout creeks in the Bay Area, it is the only creek in Palo Alto that has not been concreted over.

But some are beginning to question the wisdom of letting nature run her course.

"While a lot of people wanted to preserve the creek, we really need to have it cleaner," said acting Division Chief Harold Schapelhouman of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, who spent Monday night rescuing people from the swirling waters in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto. "A lot of people were in favor of preserving a piece of nature in this concrete jungle, but the purpose of the creek is to get water down from the mountains."

Schapelhouman said that debris and vegetation in the creek causes a fire hazard in the summer and a flood hazard in the summer, blocking the bridges. He advocates cleaning out the creek bed and fortifying the banks, with concrete if necessary.

However, public opinion seems to be firmly against interfering with nature.

"There's still a tremendous sense that they want to keep the creek natural," said Crescent Park Neighborhood Association President Cathie Lehrberg, whose own University Avenue home had 4 feet of water in the basement. "We all have to make the decision about what kind of area we want to live in. I don't think anyone here wants to see the creek concreted."

The Peninsula Conservation Center plans to release a full report of its Coordinated Resource Management and Planning Process (CRMP) to the public at the end of February. It will hold a series of public workshops this spring to discuss flood management alternatives.

"The public is really important in this process," said Johnson, adding that the communities along the creek--Stanford, Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto--will be loathe to implement any flood measures that are unpopular with the public.

For more information about the CRMP process, contact Pat Showalter at 962-9876.

--Vicky Anning

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