Almanac

News - January 2, 2013

Tri-city flood-control project flows ahead

by Gennady Sheyner

Fifteen years after water from the San Francisquito Creek swept through the neighborhoods of Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park, the partner cities are preparing to break ground on an ambitious project that would shield their constituents from future floods.

Local residents were reminded of the flooding dangers on Dec. 23 when the creek jumped its banks near West Bayshore Road in Palo Alto and caused extensive flooding on U.S. 101 and Embarcadero Road. Residents living near the creek were urged to evacuate, and 36 people in East Palo Alto reported to an evacuation center, but returned home that night.

On Nov. 13, the Palo Alto City Council signed off on a proposal by the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority to rebuild levees, add floodwalls, extend the Friendship Bridge and revamp the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course as part of a greater effort to strengthen flood protection around the three cities. The council voted 8-1, with Karen Holman dissenting, to approve the project's design; to authorize major modifications to the golf course; and to truck soil from Stanford University Medical Center to the project site.

In October, the Menlo Park City Council voted unanimously to give $300,000 to the levee project.

The creek authority's proposal, which targets the area between the San Francisco Bay and U.S. 101, seeks to go far beyond protecting residents from the fickle creek. It also aims to protect the properties near the Bay from tidal flow and a 50-year sea-level rise. As such, it will be among Bay Area's first major flood-control projects to account for the expected effects of climate change.

Len Materman, executive director the creek authority, said the agency's design assumes a sea-level rise of 2.2 feet in 50 years, a rate he called "very aggressive."

"We wanted to build or design to that scenario so that the cities of Palo Alto and East Palo Alto will not have to revisit the issue at least for the next 50 years," said Mr. Materman, whose agency includes elected officials from the three partner cities, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the San Mateo County Flood Control District.

The creek authority had spent much of the past two years performing design work and environmental analyses. The final environmental impact report for the project was certified in October.

The project's approval is a major milestone for an agency that has been struggling over the past decade and a half to get federal help for boosting flood control. After the flood of 1998, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers embarked on a comprehensive plan to protect the area from a 100-year flood, which by definition has a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year. The federal effort has slowed to a trickle in recent years, however, largely because of inadequate funding.

In the meantime, the partner cities began to look at more limited and immediate solutions, including a retention basin upstream of the creek, rebuilt levees downstream, and bridge upgrades along the creek. The downstream area, which is particularly vulnerable to flooding, is the focus of the agency's first major project, which will draw most of its funding from a Santa Clara Valley Water District bond.

This project would widen the creek channel, adjust levees and construct a boardwalk that would extend the existing Friendship Bridge between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. On a parallel track, the agency is preparing to begin the expansion of the narrow Newell Street bridge, a project that would be funded mostly through a state program targeting obsolete infrastructure.

When construction on the downstream project begins in 2013, it will mark the cities' first major flood-protection project since the February 1998 flood, which caused extensive damage to neighborhoods around the creek, most notably Crescent Park and Duveneck in Palo Alto, the Gardens in East Palo Alto, and the Willows in Menlo Park.

The project would not eliminate the requirement for many of the property owners in these areas to purchase federal flood insurance. But by offering flood protection and boosting water capacity downstream, it will allow the agency to pursue other improvements elsewhere along the creek. Once completed, this package of projects is expected to provide 100-year protection and obviate the need for insurance.

Palo Alto Councilman Pat Burt, who chairs the creek authority's board of directors, said, "As we've seen with Hurricane Sandy, we need to be thinking about how we can actually prevent disasters in addition to having the resiliency once they actually occur."

The creek authority plans to start construction in April 2013 and to complete the project in October 2014.

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