EPA levee project called off

Publication Date: Wednesday Jul 19, 2000

FLOODS: EPA levee project called off

Joint Powers Authority forced to reverse previous week's decision

by Eno Sarris

The board overseeing San Francisquito Creek had to reverse itself last week, voting not to build a new East Palo Alto levee along the creek because of the impact it would have upstream. The project, which would have repaired the banks worn by age and El Nino's deluges, was voted on by the agency the week before, but then had to be put off in order to have more time to "evaluate some possible upstream impact," said Duane Bay, a director of the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority and Vice Mayor of East Palo Alto.

The work, which would have begun in October and wrapped up before the winter rains, was called off by the Joint Powers Authority on Thursday.

Staff and lawyers for the agency found, after a unanimous vote to go ahead with the project, that restoring the levee to its 1958 elevation would cause the surface of the creek to rise up to 10 inches upstream of Highway 101 in Palo Alto. Provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) require that any project that may impact the vegetation, habitat or wildlife in the surrounding area be subject to public approval and compliant with CEQA requirements before implementation.

The project was initially approved by the San Francisquito Creek JPA, a body of government intended to coordinate the effort of the cities around the creek in "preventing the flooding and keeping the creek up to standards," as JPA board member and San Mateo County Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson puts it.

In February 1998, many homes and apartments in the city of East Palo Alto had significant flooding, especially along its western border, with impacts both from the overflowing San Francisquito Creek as well as San Francisco Bay tides.

The JPA had hoped to curb the flood potential of the area by this year's rainy season. Bay stated that not having a solution in place was a "big disappointment," and that East Palo Alto would just have to hope for less rain than El Nino brought to the creek's shores in 1998. He added, though, that finishing in October of this year had only been an "initial read" and that there was no way around having to change the project to fit the CEQA requirements.

The CEQA standards hadn't been a part of the original proposal, for which Jacobs Gibson said the JPA had "already gotten financial commitments" for up to $600,000. Jacobs Gibson felt frustrated the requirements for the project "had not been part of the discussion," and that the board was being "asked to reconsider something that we'd already approved."

The CEQA standards weren't forgotten. Jennie Micko, the assistant operating officer for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, said that those analyzing the project had hoped for a "categorical exemption" from CEQA because they felt they "could reduce or eliminate environmental impact."

When it came to their attention that raising the levees would affect the upstream environment, the water district consulted their CEQA attorneys and were told they should go through the process and extend the analysis period in order to find solutions for the upstream impact.

As the levee project stands now, all plans are halted while the analysis period continues indefinitely. Micko and Bay agreed that the levees wouldn't be raised for this rainy season while the agencies search for ways to get around upstream flooding.

There are two preliminary solutions to deal with the added water volume upstream. One, a plan to remove sediment downstream, is only a "temporary fix" according to Micko. By reducing the amount of sediment, the JPA could add to the volume of the channel downstream and keep the water from rising upstream. The JPA would have to be in charge of maintaining this aspect of the project as well--sediment collects from tidal action and would have to be removed periodically.

The second is a more permanent solution that carries with it a price tag as well as an eyesore--a flood wall on both sides of the creek upstream of the freeway.

There is some debate among some members of the Joint Powers Authority about whether the flood wall decision would fall into its jurisdiction.

Jacobs Gibson said the JPA's purpose is to "coordinate the efforts of the cities involved" in the flood area, and that a larger project like a flood wall was "not part of the JPA's role." She hoped that as the discussion went further, this issue would go back to the cities.

Bay felt differently. Although the length and cost of the project may grow, he felt that the JPA had already put itself behind the restoration of the levees.

"Reconsideration," he said, "is largely a misnomer. We are discussing the scope of the project and its relation to the mitigation of possible upstream impact. Nobody on the board said 'No, let's not do this.'" 

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