Golf course, flood projects on hold | March 7, 2014 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 7, 2014

Golf course, flood projects on hold

Water agency denies permits for major flood-protection project and planned revamp of city golf course

by Gennady Sheyner

A long-planned effort to protect Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park from the flood-prone San Francisquito Creek suffered a potentially severe setback last week, when the Regional Water Quality Control Board decided after a year of negotiations to reject the permit application for the project.

At the same time, the water board declined to give Palo Alto its permission for the massive renovation of the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course, a project that was sparked by the flood-control effort and then greatly expanded in scope.

Despite arguments from Palo Alto officials to the contrary, the water board — a regional regulatory body that is responsible for protecting the area's water resources — determined that there is "significant overlap" between the two projects. The agency stated that approving the golf course renovation would limit design changes to the flood-control project, including possible creation of a bypass channel along the golf course.

The water board issued its decisions in two letters on Feb. 27 and 28. The first, addressed to the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, stated that the board has "insufficient information on which to issue water-quality certification." The agency determined that the creek authority did not explore enough alternatives for its project, which targets the particularly vulnerable sections of East Palo Alto and Palo Alto downstream of the creek. In February 1998, about 1,700 properties in these areas were damaged in the area's largest flood on record. The creek authority, which includes on its board of directors officials from Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park, has been working ever since to protect the region from the next big one.

The second letter, addressed to Palo Alto officials, informs them that the golf course renovation will not be approved because of unresolved issues with the flood-control project.

Both efforts now face potentially significant delays while officials look for ways to meet the water board's concerns. For Palo Alto, which had hoped to break ground on the golf course renovation this spring, the delay could prove particularly expensive. Just before the City Council voted to approve the $9.4 million golf-course project, staff warned that a year delay could cost the city $1 million in foregone revenue. The bureaucratic delay makes this possibility increasingly likely.

In rejecting the creek authority's application, the water board voiced concerns about the Faber Tract, a marshy stretch that's home to endangered species such as the clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse. The water board's fear is that should the creek authority reconstruct levees and widen an existing channel to accommodate more water flow, it would be harder for these endangered species to find shelter during floods.

The creek authority should apply again for a permit, the water board stated, and include alternatives that would minimize the frequency and degree of water flow into the Faber tract, including the speed of

the water.

The water board recommended an alternative that would create a bypass channel to divert flood waters from the creek to the "ball fields near the upstream end of the proposed flood wall, continue on down along the southern boundary of the golf course, and discharge to the tidal marsh at the southern end of the (Palo Alto) airport runway."

It also asks the creek authority to consider raising the levee on the East Palo Alto side of the creek to provide more protection to the community. It also requested a design alternative called a "conveyance" that would split water flows and reduce water speed.

"We recognize the significance of the project to the community and the JPA's urgency in securing all permits for the project and proceeding to construction," the water board's Executive Officer Bruce Wolfe wrote in the letter. "This letter is intended to provide guidance to the JPA on how best to move forward to secure permits from the Regional Water Board and other regulatory agencies. Further, the Regional Water Board is committed to working with the JPA on coordinating and streamlining the permitting process."

Pat Burt, a Palo Alto City Councilman who serves on the creek authority board, called the letters from the water board "disconcerting." He noted that the project includes creating 15 acres of environmentally helpful wetlands.

"We have a project that is beneficial to the water quality in the net, and they want to fundamentally change it — as we are ready to start construction — in ways that aren't feasible," Burt said.

Burt noted that many of the issues that the water board has brought up in its rejection letter have already been thoroughly vetted during the Environmental Impact Report process and through engineering designs. The bypass option, for instance, has already been explored and rejected.

So has the conveyance system, which Burt said engineers considered eight years ago. And the levee on the East Palo Alto side was intentionally designed slightly lower than the one on the Palo Alto side because engineers believed the levee on the Palo Alto side would settle within the next few years. Burt noted that East Palo Alto, which is a member of the creek authority, was a full participant in coming up with a design and a strong supporter of the project.

"This is a very large social justice issue for East Palo Alto," Burt told the Weekly. "There is not just a risk of property damage but also a significant risk to life in East Palo Alto. And we have been able to put together a very good plan and come up with funding that can address that. We're ready to start construction, and we're now seeing a bunch of roadblocks."

Burt also noted that the water board's proposal to use Palo Alto Airport land for the flood-control project has already been explored by the city attorney's office. It fizzled for several reasons. For one, the city doesn't yet fully own the airport (it is in the process of taking it over from Santa Clara County). In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration wouldn't allow this use of airport land, he said.

Burt said Palo Alto City Manager James Keene discussed the water board's concerns with Wolfe on Monday. City and creek authority staff plan to have more discussions with the water board in the coming days.

"We certainly hope that the issues that they perceive to be problems are ones we can address promptly, because we think they're things that are readily answerable," he said.

By law, the water board was required to reach a decision within a year, a deadline that will pass on March 12. The creek authority has been pursuing the permit from the water board for the past year, a process that has already involved design changes aimed at protecting creek habitat, including new marsh mounds that provide refuge space to marsh species.

In January, creek authority's Executive Director Len Materman said to the Palo Alto Parks and Recreation Commission that he believed the water board was using the permitting process "as an avenue for them to acquire commitments by the City of Palo Alto and other cities on topics unrelated to the creek project.

"Some of them are justifiable and some are perplexing," Materman said at the Jan. 21 meeting.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


Posted by ConcernedNB, a resident of Duveneck School
on Mar 10, 2014 at 2:17 pm

This is heart-breaking news to some. In just a little over a year ago, one 4-day-long rain storm put some houses in East Palo Alto buried in flash flood. We are not talking about just property damages, but people's lives here. Yet the "Board" chose to reject the permit a few days before its legal deadline.

I live in a community where neighbors have actively attended meetings during weekday nights to discuss alternatives proposed by engineers. I know how hard many people have worked on these proposals and how concerned the neighbors are with every details put in.

As reported, 1,700 properties were affected in 1998. Multiple the number by 4 people per household. And factor in the fact of baby boomers and empty nesters now, we are talking about thousands of people with elderly and baby/toddlers living in the area. Can you sleep soundly at that knowing these numbers?

Posted by resident 1, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 10, 2014 at 3:27 pm

Web master - we already have a posting with many entries on this subject. Can you please consolidate them so we keep one stream of comments on this topic. Thank you

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