Flood risk: The turbulent history of the San Francisquito Creek flood-control projects | January 6, 2023 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 6, 2023

Flood risk: The turbulent history of the San Francisquito Creek flood-control projects

Nearly a quarter century after last major flood, residents near Pope-Chaucer and Newell bridges still wait for vulnerable structures to be replaced

by Gennady Sheyner

Xenia Hammer and her neighbors in Palo Alto's Crescent Park neighborhood watched with anxiety as water toppled over the banks of San Francisquito Creek on Saturday morning, submerging streets around the volatile creek and sparking emergency warnings from the city.

For Hammer, who lives near Eleanor Pardee Park, the sight was both rare and familiar. Though normally tame during drought years, the creek is known for creating devastation during storms as water from the foothills and Stanford University land races downstream toward U.S. Highway 101 and through residential neighborhoods in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto. Residents scarcely need to be reminded of the February 1998 storm, which flooded 1,700 properties, required hundreds of people to evacuate, caused tens of millions of dollars in property damage, and submerged the highway.

"It's very scary and stressful to watch the creek levels creeping up," Hammer said. "I saw so many neighbors outside looking at floodwater and being very worried. It's been 25 years since the last flood and there is no excuse for being in that situation here."

For Hammer and other residents near the creek, the anxiety comes with a palpable sense of frustration. The Pope-Chaucer Bridge, which crosses the creek and connects Crescent Park and Menlo Park's Willows neighborhood, remains vulnerable to flooding despite two decades of discussions about the need to rebuild the 1940s structure with one that has greater water-flow capacity.

Pope-Chaucer Bridge held up on Dec. 31 but just barely, with city gauges showing water rising up to about 21 feet, close to the span's 24-foot capacity, before dipping as rain subsided. In other areas along the creek, including Woodland Avenue in East Palo Alto and Hale Street in Palo Alto, water pooled on the streets, prompting street closures and warnings from the city calling for residents to move their valuables to higher locations and to be prepared for evacuations.

The morning anxiety gave way to afternoon relief as water gauges in upstream areas of Stanford University showed water levels dropping — an indication that the worst had passed and that downstream areas in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park would not be on the receiving end of another deluge.

The U.S. Geological Survey subsequently revised its figures and concluded that the water flows peaked at 6,340 cubic feet per second (cfs), down from its initial estimate of about 7,400 cfs. And by 12:30 p.m., the water at Pope-Chaucer Bridge had dropped by about 18 inches from its peak level, according to Mayor Pat Burt, who toured various flood-prone areas during the storm.

Thomas Rindfleisch, a Crescent Park resident and longtime advocate for creek improvements, spent his Dec. 31 morning monitoring water gauges in the foothills and updating his neighbors through an email list. He became startled when he checked the gauge at about 9 a.m. and saw the spike in reported water flow on Stanford land. He recalled looking at the measurements and thinking, "Oh my God! We're headed for disaster!"

"Things were really, really scary early in the morning. I started sending out messages to try to let people know what's going on so that they can begin their day," he said.

Unfinished business

For him, the storm served as both a mark of progress for the regional flood-control effort and a stark reminder of how much business remains unfinished. The San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, an agency whose board consists of elected officials from the three cities around the creek and from the two water agencies that serve these communities, has been working on improving flood protection around the creek for nearly two decades.

The agency was created after the 1998 flood and celebrated a major victory in June 2019 when it completed the first of three major projects in the most vulnerable area, located between the U.S. Highway 101 and the Bay. Known as "Reach 1," the project included widening the channel, building new levees and floodwalls and creating a marsh plain near Palo Alto's golf course. The project, then and now, was seen as a necessary step for pursuing projects further upstream, including replacement of the Newell Road Bridge between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, the Pope-Chaucer Bridge.

Creek authority officials and residents credited this work, as well as a concurrent effort by the California Department of Transportation to increase creek flow capacity at U.S. Highway 101, for limiting the flood damage during this week's storms. Over the past decade, Caltrans had updated culverts under the highway and added a new one to boost flow capacity and prevent the type of pooling that occurred in 1998.

Margaret Bruce, who in 2020 took over as executive director of the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, said the downstream work was "very significant."

"We protected that whole neighborhood — a very large segment of East Palo Alto," Bruce said in an interview. "It was incredibly successful and incredibly important."

But while Hammer and Rindfleisch both share that sentiment, they are quick to point out that the downstream work has done little to protect their neighborhood and those further upstream. Here, work has progressed at a snail's pace thanks to a combination of bureaucracy, litigation, funding shortages and design revisions.

"It's very, very frustrating for me. I'm a doer, I want to get things done. And the whole process is sluggish; it's overburdened by red tape," Rindfleisch said.

Not every resident has shared his excitement about moving ahead with the proposed flood improvements. In 2019, Menlo Park resident Peter Joshua sued the creek authority, alleging that its environmental analysis for the Pope-Chaucer replacement failed to consider an appropriate range of alternatives. (A California appeals court judge struck down his argument in August 2022, clearing the way for the project to proceed.)

And in 2020, an attorney for Palo Alto resident Yang Shen, who lives near the creek, issued a letter challenging the city's plans for the replacement of the Newell Road Bridge and protesting the impact the construction would bring to his Edgewood Road property.

Meanwhile, other residents around the Newell Bridge took issue with the design that the city selected for the structure, arguing that wider structure would bring more cars and, hence, more traffic into their neighborhood. While the Palo Alto City Council ultimately approved the project in July 2020, the prolonged debate over the design of the new bridge further delayed construction.

Burt, who represents Palo Alto on the creek authority's board of directors, said that these various negotiations, coupled with rising construction costs and the need to obtain environmental permits form various regional agencies, contributed to delays in getting the Reach 2 projects going.

"Even on the embankments and all the channels in between Chaucer and Newell, we've had very difficult negotiations with some of the property owners there," he said. "The creek JPA has had to go back and do additional studies to see how they might minimize the impacts on those property owners on the Palo Alto side, and they've been able to come up with some redesigns that reduce the impacts but not eliminate them."

What lies ahead

As things stand, Palo Alto is preparing to start doing preliminary construction work on the Newell Road Bridge later this year, with the goal of completing the project in 2024. If plans move forward as is, work on Pope-Chaucer would begin in 2025, according to the creek authority.

Concurrently, the creek authority remains in negotiations with Stanford about upstream improvements, including a possible detention basin that, when combined with the downstream work, would provide protection from a "100-year flood," an extreme event that has a 1 in 100 chance of happening in any given year. One alternative that the creek authority is currently analyzing is the creation of a detention basin at a former plant nursery site on Stanford property.

The creek authority is also reevaluating its design for the channel widening in the "Reach 2" area. Bruce told the board at the creek authority's November meeting that officials are looking at whether the channel should be widened on both sides or just on one side, which would minimize the impact to property owners.

"That evaluation is delaying the entire process a little bit, but we think it's a thoughtful way of approaching this design conundrum and making sure we have both the best engineering solution and the best solution for project neighbors," Bruce said at the Nov. 17 meeting.

The creek authority's design modifications aren't the only factors that may yet delay work on the upstream segments. Regulatory agencies may, for example, require further analysis of the creek channel to consider recent erosion and other changes that have occurred over the winter, Bruce said.

Funding is also an ongoing source of concern. Though Palo Alto recently received $2 million in state funding for the Newell Bridge project, Burt warned that the price tag for the creek-control work has been steadily rising over recent months and that there will likely be a funding gap. That, he said, is a challenge that is affecting all major infrastructure projects throughout the region.

In November, creek authority staff pegged the cost of all the Reach 2 projects at about $53 million, which includes $10.6 million and $9.8 million for replacement of the two bridges, $20.4 million for channel widening and $12.3 million for work on top of the banks. At that time, the agency identified about $34.5 million in available funding, much of it coming from Valley Water, Caltrans and CAP 205, a program administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Creek authority staff is preparing to provide updated cost estimates to the board in February, Bruce said. Despite the various uncertainties and delays to date, Bruce said she is confident that the projects will be moving ahead soon. While unforeseen setbacks are always possible because in many respects "nature is in control," she said in an interview, the plan is to have all the construction on the Reach 2 segment done by 2026.

"There is such a need to complete these projects," Bruce said. "There is such a motivation to complete these projects and I'm confident that the resources will be made available through a combination of state, federal and local funding. The trick has been putting that puzzle together in a way that works for everyone."

Email Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner at [email protected]


Posted by Local Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 4, 2023 at 9:07 pm

Local Resident is a registered user.

The Creek was one foot from overtopping Chaucer on evening of Dec 31st

Posted by StephenM
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 4, 2023 at 10:43 pm

StephenM is a registered user.

Just to be clear, the water level at the upstream side of Pope-Chaucer reached 23.64 ft at its maximum on Dec 31 (see Web Link ) . That is about 4 inches below the top of the bridge. While the peak flow is now given as 6320 cfs, the USGS gauge height was the highest it has ever been (13.66 ft), i.e., higher than was measured during the 1998 flood. The initial flow rate reported by the USGS for the peak on the 31st was around 7400 cfs, and looks to have been based on the same stage-flow relationship used to list the peak of the '98 flood as 7200 cfs. It appears that sometime later on the 31st the USGS revised the relationship between flow and gauge height, perhaps somewhat based on a measurement they did a little before noon on the 31st.

Posted by densely
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 4, 2023 at 10:54 pm

densely is a registered user.

Would the proposed retention basin be in the area between I-280 and Jasper Ridge? How much water would it hold?

Posted by Hometown Girl
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 5, 2023 at 8:59 am

Hometown Girl is a registered user.

Regarding a water capture area on Stanford property to prevent downstream creek flooding, I remember “Lake Lagunita” filling up during the winters and dry out over the summers. I understand Stanford used the water for their campus landscape irrigation. It was located on the east side of Foothill Expressway. Why can’t Stanford start using that a a flood basin — and get natural water for their landscaping?

Posted by Xenia
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 5, 2023 at 11:20 am

Xenia is a registered user.

Thank you, Gennady Sheyner, for covering this important topic. Your coverage is excellent. I do want to make one important clarification: In your article, you state: "Pope-Chaucer Bridge held up on Dec. 31 but just barely". Let's be clear: Pope Chaucer Bridge blocked the creek and caused flooding on December 31.
Digging in to the details:
As Stephen Monismith mentions above in his comment, the water reached the very top of the barrier at Pope Chaucer Bridge. The berms immediately to the right and left of the bridge also held. This is a good thing and is a direct benefit of the project done a few years ago to reinforce these berms. SF Creek JPA estimates that this increased the capacity at Pope Chaucer Bridge from about 5,400 cubic feet per second (CFS) to about 5,800 cfs. This is a nice, helpful but marginal improvement.
At the same time, let's be clear: Pope Chaucer Bridge overflowed. The overflows happened just a little bit upstream, for example at Hale Street 20 feet upstream. Residents report seeing overflows there. Pope Chaucer Bridge is a dam that blocks the creek and causes flooding. We saw this on Dec 31 as the flow reached 6,300 cfs. Pope Chaucer Bridge needs to be replaced as soon as possible.

Posted by Jonathan Greene
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 5, 2023 at 12:06 pm

Jonathan Greene is a registered user.

I think it is important to note that even though the flooding was not as bad as it could have been, many homes sustained damage, and some people have had to move out.

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 5, 2023 at 12:45 pm

Anonymous is a registered user.

Dithering of our overly complicated government bureaucracy here is a disgrace.
A serious large flood occurred in 1998.
Yes, I know the massive downstream flood channel of San Francisqito Creek in the baylands is completed and protects a small portion of East Palo Alto (San Mateo County) with homes that already sit (oddly) right IN the baylands. Hallelujah for them.
In meantime, mainstream sections of Palo Alto (Santa Clara County) and Menlo Park, large sections of which with hundreds of homes, straddle the San Franciscquito Creek or are nearby or not even that nearby, continue to be put at risk and on the back burner by our politicians.
Santa Clara County, I will state in my opinion, poorly serves residents of this very northern part of the county. We are highly taxed (property taxes) - those of us who own homes. San Jose is the “HQ” of Santa Clara County, this is clear.
Yes, I inow this is one piece of the equation of remediating, improving, hopefully solving the periodic flooding issue; Stanford University must engage on this flood problem, etc., there are one or two frivolous lawsuits from random persons.
The bureaucracy of the joint political authority is known.
Nobody says this is a snap of the fingers. But look at the years that have passed by!!
The situation is solvable.
It is crystal clear our politicians have foot-dragged while attention and money has been paid to a multitude of FAR less important topics (whether city/ies, county/ies, Corps. of Engineers, etc., etc.)
I don’t believe for a SECOND there hasn’t been enough money (or time) to fully fix the upstream - middle-stream issues.
Each and every politician “serving” this region should be prioritizing action NOW on moving the bridge projects forward materially.

Posted by revdreileen
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 5, 2023 at 3:32 pm

revdreileen is a registered user.

One additional part of this story that could be told is the years (3-4?) of delay on approving the EIR for the Newell bridge reconstruction that came from the ridiculous assertion from some folks on the Palo Alto side of the bridge that there should be no bridge there at all because they are uncomfortable that some of "us" use it to cross into their neighborhood. They argued vehemently about the bridge configuration, slowing the process considerably. It still makes me angry to remember some of the things Crescent Park residents said or implied at a community meeting at Lucie Stern almost ten years ago about the people in my neighborhood in EPA. Their statements were at a minimum, classist, but I also heard racism in some of the things people said or implied. There was a vibe in that meeting that ONLY the needs of Crescent Park residents mattered in the discussion, with almost no interest in the needs of Woodland Park residents.

The safety of my neighborhood, with only three entry/exit points (University&Woodland, West Bayshore [email protected] border of EPA and PA, and Newell [email protected] border of EPA and PA), would be severely compromised should we permanently lose one of our means of egress. When the West Bayshore [email protected] border of EPA and PA was being re-constructed in 2017-2018, we had only two point of egress. Occasionally during that period, one was closed because of a problem and we had only one point of egress. It was scary to feel trapped in the neighborhood, and frustrating when I couldn't get home because of heavy traffic back-up into the neighborhood. Crescent Parkers complained about how much traffic was going over the Newell bridge at that point (which coincided with the EIR process), but it was higher then for a very good reason, in that one of our main points of egress was closed as part of this flood protection process.

Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 5, 2023 at 5:21 pm

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

A parallel and relevant focus should be hazard communication. As developed today by the New York Times, the future holds more intense storm events (and droughts), and therefore even the critical infrastructure improvements will still leave flood risk.

Hazard communication can be very smart and informative. Does my property need sand bags? For a given storm, what might be the depth of bagging? When will a flood peak arrive? How long will it last?

The current hazard communication was a disappointment. We have had 25 years to enhance this system, and the progress seems piece meal. City of Palo Alto suffered breakdowns at the critical moments in the creek monitor. The creek JPA system for flood alert did not "alert". Phone messaging systems by the City contacted homes of imminent flooding after the flooding was occurring. Too many messages were received from too many agencies including state and federal politicians that could not resist the chance to show their faces to us.

As the article describes we are blessed with a brain trust in Palo Alto's community to model a more informative hazard communication system. We came to realize in our Crescent Park neighborhood the appetite for sophisticated and timely messaging, messaging that was much more important than the generic messages from the government agencies.

I am hoping to help or support this an evolution in our hazard communication. A community member could expect a message informative to their property (or city block) that advises to likely depth and timing (probabilistic). This is informed by forecasted weather, forecasted streamflow, then forecasted flood loading, and then modeled to the street level. The web service is automated, and perpetual.

Who should do this? I am beginning to think the SCVWD as that is their competency. The City of Palo Alto would be a partner, but some of our difficulty is we are demanding competency in the City that is not there.

This is my focus now.

Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 6, 2023 at 3:29 am

Rebecca Eisenberg is a registered user.

Bob, you make many good points. Although I am still getting my feet wet, it occurs to me daily that much of this work should be regionalized rather than leaving cities to fight it out. Too often the wealthier cities are able to push through their interests at the expense of the less wealthy communities. This problem is exacerbated by an already-existing problem of environmental injustice, where vulnerable and BIPOC communities often are located in areas most vulnerable to climate events. This is the case with EPA.

I also urge people to keep in mind that these problems are caused by human intervention with our natural environment. As we continue to overdevelop, building out rather than up, we have destroyed natural ecosystems and eliminated groundcover that is essential to protect us from climate events. E.g., when we cover the ground w/concrete parking lots and remove trees in order to build large homes and office buildings (and private schools), we make the ground non-permeable, so that water has to flow out rather than go down naturally. We urgently must stop encroaching on natural habitat, while at the same time giving back as much land as we can to nature. Trees are our best carbon sinks, and recharging groundwater basins works better than Lake Lag.

Water projects in the US West have been fraught with giant misunderstandings that continue to build on past mistakes. For example, we now understand that dams are almost never good ways to corral water resources, as dams generally create more problems (flooding, loss of fish and other wildlife, increased sediment, etc) than they solve. In the past, in order to address problems created by dams, short-sighted politicians built more dams(!) rather than removing them. Now we are facing insurmountable extinction events, rivers that have no water in them for most of the year, and communities vulnerable to flooding.

We have paths forward, but we must work together. Preserving natural habitat is step one.

Posted by Native to the BAY
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 6, 2023 at 5:08 am

Native to the BAY is a registered user.

Important phone numbers to @Rebecca . Hello PA HEWG has sent a number 2 HCD 4 upwards of 4000 plus Bayland “dwellings” for current housing element.

Re: PA’s Shak Co and his inane “UplIft” online has us down spout. Soup recipes are not going to house the most vulnerable?? Here’s an excerpt from City: “COVID-19 resources to keep you and your family healthy, City Council Reorganization Monday and a soup recipe to warm you up during this stormy time. All this and more in this week’s Uplift Local” All while Lytton BofA denies low wage workers access to hard earned cash to be prepared for a flood, let alone getting ingredients for City soup recipes.

It’s too obvious the ignoring of those unhoused and living surviving on or in Geng road. Climate calamity and HEWG has sent
An plan of 4K plus home dwelling to the state. At on and near dilapidated or abandoned waste water plant(s).

Posted by Jerry
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 6, 2023 at 3:12 pm

Jerry is a registered user.

@Native I dunno, I can't exactly be the gazpacho police here but I'm a believer that you can have your soup and eat it too.

But one question is whether the new housing units proposed under housing element are subject to the same environmental regulations as all others would be? My vague impression of California's "housing first" initiative is it's mantra is: "screw the existing rules, just build, build, build".

That would be at odds with Rebecca's environmental concerns. 4000 new units built one year and destroyed by a flood the next year would be a monumental tragedy.

Posted by Xenia
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 6, 2023 at 4:11 pm

Xenia is a registered user.

95% of San Francisquito Creek watershed is undeveloped hillsides. The creek collects water from a vast watershed in the hills and funnels it through a narrow channel in Menlo Park, Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. Some bridges block the flow in that narrow channel; most notably, Pope-Chaucer, Newell and Bayshore.

The Reach 2 project will reduce risk of flooding between 101 and Middlefield. It is a science-based project that will restore the creek closer to its natural state. We all need to support San Francisquito Creek JPA to get this project done as soon as possible.

As the article mentions, Reach 1 project (101 to the Bay) was completed recently and successfully protected East Palo Alto on Dec 31. This is a huge success and accomplishment for CalTrans, SF Creek JPA and all member agencies, including Santa Clara County's Valley Water, San Mateo County, PA, MP and EPA.

Posted by KOhlson
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 7, 2023 at 12:29 pm

KOhlson is a registered user.

I couldn't agree more with Bob W's comments. It seems everyone I know in PA got the same message that flooding was imminent - no matter where in town you lived. This so concerned my next-door neighbor, who was out of town, that she emailed me to ask for reassurance that her house was OK. Meanwhile, actual flooding was occurring in the area near Hamilton/Center/Newell. As we made our way to my in-laws house the water was ankle-high at mid-street and knee-high at the gutter.

This flooding was forecasted several days in advance, on every MSM news channel. It would seem that more proactive, more complete, and more targeted alerts would have been helpful, as well as more practical instructions on how to prepare.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 7, 2023 at 3:47 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

"As we continue to overdevelop, building out rather than up, we have destroyed natural ecosystems and eliminated groundcover that is essential to protect us from climate events. E.g., when we cover the ground w/concrete parking lots and remove trees in order to build large homes and office buildings (and private schools), ..."

Let's not forget all small houses, zero-clearance housing of all sizes, ADUs, pods, etc. that each community is now legally required to huild to fulfill state mandates.

Also remember that the attorney general has made it ILLEGAL to consider floods. drought, fires, accessibility and other common sense facts of life in contesting any of the mandated housing targets. Just ignore the hundreds of thousands of layoffs and all the remote workers.

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 7, 2023 at 5:37 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

If you still have a AAA map of the area you can see that the creek originator is a large lake above 280 that has a 100 year old dam that we all have discussed many times. The problem starts at the top. What is worse if you look at the location below the lake you see the SU hospitals. The whole top of this system needs to be corrected to mitigate the damage downstream. And eventually the downstream is going to include the campus. It is in everyone's best interests that the whole system be addressed as a unit vs us plugging the hole in the dyke downstream.

We have to get out of the mode of opertion where we correct problems due to lack of attention from the top to the bottom of the system. Who keeps preventing this? Piecemeal corrections of problems is the typical way we are functioning and we are ending up with rotten results.

Posted by SE Hinton
a resident of another community
on Jan 8, 2023 at 4:05 pm

SE Hinton is a registered user.

Anyone who would like to check local USGS or Valley Water stream levels can do so for her or himself. From a mobile or desktop browser Valley Water has 2 options, Web Link (new version) or Web Link (older version - 1st step is to tap or click on the upper right drop down icon). The newer version includes data from USGS while the older version does not. Or one can choose to look at USGS sensors here, Web Link All 3 sites give current data.

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