Update: Atherton residents question plans for water facility in park

Caltrans would pay $13.6 million cost of facilty to reduce flooding and remove pollutants from storm water

This graphic shows in the upper left where Atherton might place a water capture facility that will help prevent flooding and clean pollutants from water before it reaches the Bay. (Courtesy town of Atherton)

This is an updated version of an earlier story.

Atherton's proposal to put a water capture facility in Holbrook-Palmer Park to help control flooding and remove pollutants from storm water before it reaches the Bay appears to have hit a snag -- public opposition.

More than 60 people showed up for the March 7 Park and Recreation Committee meeting, and residents had more than an hour of questions about the proposed facility.

The town had advertised the meeting via a postcard mailed to all town addresses, but many at the meeting said they did not receive it.

The town has been talking about the project for more than a year, since it was offered $13.6 million through the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to build the underground facility.

Caltrans is being required by the state water board to reduce the amount of pollutants in runoff water near its roadways, so it has offered to pay for a number of such facilities throughout the state.

But speakers said that the town's timeline, which requires a council decision by June, is too short.

Outreach needed

A resident of nearby Maple Avenue said the town has "a lot of outreach that has to be done before they make a decision."

"This seems like that's an awful short time to do this," he said, adding that the park was given to be used for recreational purposes.

"I think we should use it for what it was meant to be, which is recreational purposes," he said to general applause.

Atherton and other local entities have similar mandates from the regional water board.

Initial plans to put the structure under playing fields at Las Lomitas Elementary School fell apart after the City Council said it couldn't accept the district's terms, especially one asking the town to agree not to back out of the project once it was started.

Council members said they want the option to back out of the project once the design is far enough along that they can estimate what the annual maintenance costs will be, as the Caltrans agreement allows. The school district said it couldn't allow that because of its construction schedule.

Caltrans allowed the town to move the project site to Holbrook-Palmer Park, which had been identified in a 2015 drainage master plan as one of three possible locations for a storm water detention basin. The other locations were the Las Lomitas School campus and the privately owned Menlo Circus Club.

The drainage master plan envisions large, slightly depressed grassy areas where water could be diverted in flood conditions. The facility Caltrans has offered to pay for is much more elaborate, diverting and possibly storing the water deep underground, and would require much less above-ground land area.

Threat of lawsuits

More than one speaker said the town could face lawsuits if the project is approved in the park. "I think there's a high likelihood of lawsuits opposing this," said one neighbor. "This is going to be a very high-profile project in a very central part of town."

Others suggested alternative sites such as under the new civic center or under the playing fields at Menlo College.

City Council member Rick DeGolia, who is the liaison to the Park and Recreation Committee, said the project is still a long way from being approved. "We're looking at it. We haven't made any commitment to doing this," he said. Only after looking at "what all the potential impacts are, what all the potential benefits are" will a decision be made, he said.

The council does need to make a decision by June in order to continue the agreement with Caltrans.

Six feet under

Engineers at the March 7 meeting described the facility as an underground concrete structure about 11 feet deep, buried under 6 feet of soil, that could hold about 9 acre-feet of water. The drainage plan indicated that a holding area for 10 acre-feet of water would help the town avoid the size of flood predicted to occur once every 10 years.

Consultants at the meeting said the ability to divert that much water could protect from flooding both downstream and upstream from the park, and also in Redwood City, where the Atherton Channel ends up.

A rubber dam would divert water and debris to the underground facility after suspended debris was removed. The collected debris would be trucked off about four times a year, the consultants said.

While the engineering is still in preliminary stages, representatives of Tetra Tech, an international engineering firm that has designed a similar facility in Southern California, said they are looking at three possible park locations under grass fields and a parking lot. The construction would probably require a new bridge into the park, which could also be used by fire trucks, the consultants said.

Almost the entire facility would be underground, unless the town decides it wants to be able to use the collected water for spray irrigation. That would require treatment tanks, which would probably be placed in the corporation yard where park equipment is stored.

Cap on costs

The consultants also said that the project will not be built if it costs more than the amount Caltrans has agreed to pay. The town is responsible for the annual maintenance costs, which won't be known until the design is further refined.

Matt Fabry from San Mateo County's City/County Association of Government's storm water pollution prevention program said pollutants at the levels that would be collected by the system would not be considered toxic waste. "The levels of mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) ... that are going to be coming into any project in the park are going to be low levels," he said.

City Manager George Rodericks confirmed that in a similar Southern California project the town examined, the waste products from the facility go into a regular landfill and do not require any special treatment.

If the project is approved by the City Council, which is expected to vote on it by June, construction is scheduled to start in July 2019 and take 20 months to complete.

This timeline, which overlaps the town's construction of a new civic center, also raised some opposition. "Are you going to consider the impact on the people, the organizations," that use the park? one speaker asked. "We're going to be in a terrible situation with (the disruptions from) the new town center," he said. "Our only refuge is this park."

A consultant said the town would receive a number of benefits in addition to the flood control the project would provide. When the project is completed a new irrigation system, sod and pathways would be installed and, if the council approves, a new source of irrigation water would be available.

See the presentation and other information about the project on the town's website.


See previous stories:

Atherton offered $13.6 million for pollution, flood control

Atherton is moving efforts for flood control to park

Atherton water capture facility will require scrutiny


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24 people like this
Posted by Sandy Crittenden
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 9, 2018 at 2:54 pm

Sandy Crittenden is a registered user.

This is not the right place for this project. The council needs to consider the users of the park, the ongoing financial liability of the project. The minuscule amount of toxins to be filtered out and the grossly inadequate flood control makes this a bad idea. Even if someone else is paying for this, our only jewel of a park will forever be changed for the worse.

23 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Atherton: Lloyden Park
on Mar 9, 2018 at 3:52 pm

Thank you for the article.

I think it is worth mentioning that not one town resident in attendance spoke in favor of building this huge project. There were lots of good questions, but the overriding message at the meeting was why are we turning our park where children play into a waste water treatment facility? Digging a 11 foot deep hole where the current lawn is will turn our park and neighborhood into a construction site for 2 years. There are simpler, cheaper and less invasive ways to control flooding and reduce pollution.

I hope the Town Council is listening and we find an alternative way to solve this issue.

18 people like this
Posted by Maple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 9, 2018 at 9:15 pm

Agreed that this project does not belong in a recreational park. The level of pollutants in Atherton, according to the engineers at this meeting, is quite low with respect to the rest of the county due to the history of land use. The only other similar project under consideration anywhere nearby is in South San Francisco. The flood control that would be provided by this facility is uncompelling - it doesn’t hold enough to make a difference in a massive storm.

The project seems like a way for Cal Trans to check their boxes at a discount (they get a 50% refund for working with cities directly) and for Tetra Tech to gain a large contract, at the expense of a beautiful park which is an easy target since no one has to buy the land.

The benefits given were all scare tactics: avoiding fines (which by their admission is a myth since Atherton would be nearly the last Town fined for pollutants in the county) and avoiding lawsuits. And they’ll build some new paths - since they’ll be digging up the current ones. The downsides: 2 acres of park excavated and fenced off for two years, ongoing maintenance and depreciation cost to the Town so it can then operate and eventually replace a 13 million dollar asset it never needed after its 50 year life time.

The only facility Tetra Tech has built isn’t yet operational after construction delays. The design is new and unproven, and could be an ongoing earthquake liability. Residents are only now learning of the extent of the project, just a month before Tetra Tech’s decision timeline. Atherton debated renovating the park’s baseball diamond for years - how can the Council move forward on a such a massive project with such unclear benefits and almost zero community visibility in a month? I join others in urging them to find a better solution for the community.

10 people like this
Posted by Ashfield
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 10, 2018 at 6:54 am

I'm disappointed in the Almanac Article. It captured the city's point of view but did not capture the obvious tone of the meeting, residents are completely against this project. NOT even the slightest doubt!

The previous comments in this blog do a great job highlighting how the residents feeling and our story.

Why not mention the scare tactics being used by the council which are commented about above , "The benefits given were all scare tactics: avoiding fines (which by their admission is a myth since Atherton would be nearly the last Town fined for pollutants in the county) and avoiding lawsuits"

By doing the project we would "create" a potential bio hazard. This is our park where our kids go to preschool, and thousands people participate in activities such as; baseball, tennis, soccer, lacrosse, dog walk, getting married etc.

As mentioned in the meeting, the primary issue is meeting flood control regulations. Council should be using our resources to study how can we accomplish the flood control requirement at minimal cost and and impact to the community. The last thing we want to do is rush into a project like this.

I love this area but in the past year Counsil has taken actions in which residents have had to rally to oppose (cutting down heritage and many other trees, trian electrification issues, and now this). It's getting old and residents like me are feeling uneasy thinking what's next?

There are so many items in which Counsil can be proactive and work to look after the best interests of our residents. Please build the new town center on time and within budget. Our police deserve this. Please build up money reserves that will be depleted from the town center. Please make sure our Menlo Park Schools are solid. Many of our kids go to these public schools and last year they came very close to cutting Millions in critical funding. Work to mitigate the tremendous traffic and road issues we will face as a result of Menlo Park exploding with business. Please prevent new Taxes, I can go on and on but I won't :) Thanks for your ear.

10 people like this
Posted by Peter F Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 10, 2018 at 12:12 pm

Actually the Town turned down a far better option:
"therton's City Council voted Aug. 1 to drop plans to install an underground drainage facility at Las Lomitas School and instead to explore putting the equipment — meant to filter runoff heading to the San Francisco Bay and help control flooding — underground at Holbrook-Palmer Park.
The town was unable to come to an agreement with the Las Lomitas Elementary School District, although district officials said they had spent two years trying to find a way to make the project work.

The town had planned to take advantage of a district construction project to put the drainage basin under school property.

$13.6 million grant

Atherton has been offered a $13.6 million Caltrans-administered grant that would pay the total costs of designing and installing a facility that, in addition to providing flood prevention, would filter contaminants from water before releasing it to flow to the Bay.

But town officials have worried that the town won't be able to afford to pay the annual maintenance costs of the facility."

And now the Town still does not know what will be the annual maintenance costs will be and the Town will also have to disrupt the park to install this facility - go figure!

7 people like this
Posted by Amazing
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 10, 2018 at 1:19 pm

Ashfield says: "I'm disappointed in the Almanac Article. It captured the city's point of view but did not capture the obvious tone of the meeting, residents are completely against this project. NOT even the slightest doubt!"

So what else is new? The Almanac has shown incredible pro-government bias in its journalism about Atherton is recent years. It basically prints what the town manager or council member says. There are no hard questions designed to get to the heart of the matter, point out logical inconsistencies, etc., i.e., journalism.

This latest fiasco about the park is just yet another example of mismanagement by the town council. They've lost a lot of moral authority to lead by repeatedly failing to deliver on one thing after another (private donations for the town center, parcel tax, to name a few) and are spending most of their time picking fights with other entities. The net result is the Atherton resident will pay more taxes and get less service.

9 people like this
Posted by Peter F Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 10, 2018 at 1:29 pm

Interesting strategy - the Council had two site options and they turned down the first before getting any citizen input on the second.

And now they state that the citizens don't have an option.

11 people like this
Posted by Victor Para
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 10, 2018 at 3:25 pm

I am also disappointed in the Almanac Article. It almost appears that a council member or the City Manager wrote the article for the Almanac. It looks and reads like a sales pitch that George or Rick might offer.

If I am not mistaken, a representative of the Almanac was present for the meeting.

My question to the Almanac... Where is the balance between what the Town Council and City Manager are proposing and the strong objections and concerns the residents of Atherton presented during the meeting? Frankly, it does not exist. Again, very disappointing,

After the meeting, one of the consultants showed me the engineering study done a few years ago regarding storm-water flood control/abatement. I am by far no expert in this type of analysis but, based on what was explained and what the graphs depict it is hard to believe the problem will be fully mitigated by the proposed solution.

During the meeting Atherton residents raised many questions but there was very little substance in any of the answers.

A lot more “detailed” work needs to be done.

We all knowe… “The Devil is in the details.”

Seems to me there is a lot of Devil that needs to be unmasked.

19 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 10, 2018 at 5:29 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

From the 1 Aug minutes:

".. having a water capture facility at the park would give the Town more control."

So in order to have MORE CONTROL the Council is willing to disrupt the park for almost two years, potentially add the cost of an new access bridge and still incur the same maintenance costs that it would have had if this facility had been built at Los Lomitas!

All of this for MORE CONTROL?

This is the same Council that wants to CONTROL Caltrain, CONTROL the Library JPA and CONTROL the Fire District.

16 people like this
Posted by Menlo Voter.
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Mar 10, 2018 at 6:10 pm

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.


the rich, entitled folks of Atherton always want to control EVERYTHING. I've been working with these people for two decades. They all think they are the "smartest people in the room" and whatever they think or want is the way it should be. Never mind if reality conflicts with what they want. Chalk it up to the stupid, entitled wealthy, know-it-alls of Atherton. It won't change. It's what they want and they're rich, therefor it's how it should be.

12 people like this
Posted by Voter
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 10, 2018 at 11:19 pm

I agree with the comments regarding the journalistic efforts on behalf of the Almanac- although I was happy to see that this fiasco did receive some more attention. The comments are much more poignant than the article itself, There are many generalizations such as the statement which says the company receiving the grant has other projects in place in Southern California. In fact there is only one project and it hasn’t even been constructed fully yet due to scheduling issues. I’m not sure about the rest of you but in an area where a square-foot sells for a ridiculously high amount the fact that city Council would agree to the exploitation of land that was generously gifted to the town without the consent or approval of its citizens who benefit so much from this gem smells a little rotten… And the facility might too.

5 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 11, 2018 at 7:46 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

When the Town was offered the opportunity of this grant from Caltrans why didn't the Council bring this matter to the citizens so that all three choices could have been considered:
1 - Decline the grant
2 - Accept the grant and utilize the offered Los Lomitas site
3 - Accept the grant and utilize HP Park?

Instead this is what has happened:
"The need for a stormwater detention/storage facility was identified in in the Town-wide Drainage Study Update prepared in 2015 to reduce flooding associated with the Atherton Channel. Approximately 10 acre-feet of detention/storage capacity is needed to manage a 10-year storm event to minimize flooding associated with the existing Marsh Road box culvert. Additionally, the Town is required to comply with the Municipal Regional Permit (MRP) issued by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. The MRP requires all permittees to implement green infrastructure improvements to reduce the amount of mercury and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) in stormwater discharges to the San Francisco Bay. Caltrans has agreed to contribute an amount not to exceed $13,600,000 to the Town of Atherton to construct a water capture and treatment facility in the Town, to assist with their stormwater permit requirements.

The Town-wide Drainage Study Update identified three potential sites for The 2015 Town-wide Drainage Study Update looked at three possible sites to capture stormwater from the Atherton Channel: Las Lomitas Elementary School, Holbrook-Palmer Park, and the JL Dixon Stables. Because of the complexity of working with a privately owned site at some distance from the Channel, the Town chose not to relocate the project to the JL Dixon Stables. The Town first attempted to work with the Las Lomitas Elementary School District on a water capture project at the school. However, the Town was not able to come to an agreement with the School District. he Town moved the project downstream to Holbrook-Palmer Park - actually a better site because of a larger tributary area and more space available for construction of the project."

2 people like this
Posted by CA Gone Mad
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Mar 11, 2018 at 4:34 pm

All of this brought to Atherton's liberal elite by the EPA and the Clean Water Act.

I imagine when the CA executive branch was giddy when they learned of the EPA audit findings for CalTrans. They couldn't wait to spend the money on this kind of stuff. It's an easy sell to the CA legislature. After All, they want to spend billions on a couple of tunnels to protect some fish. $13 million to clean the water runoff from Atherton seems inconsequential.

All of these progressive ideals and expenditures have consequences. Looks like one of them is going to be a smelly catch-basin in Atherton's park. I wonder if Olive Palmer is turning over in her grave?

8 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 12, 2018 at 5:11 pm

I attended the meeting, and it was clear that of the sixty plus residents in attendance, the vast majority were skeptical, at best, or else very much in opposition. Many good questions were raised for which the answers were either unavailable or unsatisfactory. To the question of "Will it smell", the answer was "Probably Not". Not very comforting.
The so-called "benefits" to the Park were minimal and very exaggerated. One was much more irrigation water. HPP has never had a problem with irrigation. Maybe a location which needs irrigation (golf course?) would find the benefits suitable to pursue the project. With 1/3 of 1% of the populaton of San Mateo County, we are being asked to shoulder a county-wide burden. Wrong location for this project, in my opinion.

6 people like this
Posted by Mad Libs 94027
a resident of another community
on Mar 13, 2018 at 8:15 pm

Every Almanac article about Atherton follows the basic model:

"Elderly Hyper-Wealthy Asked to Expend Some Money and/or Consider the Greater Good; Elderly Hyper-Wealthy Angrily Refuse"

4 people like this
Posted by Menlo Voter.
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Mar 14, 2018 at 7:50 am

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.

"Elderly Hyper-Wealthy Asked to Expend Some Money and/or Consider the Greater Good; Elderly Hyper-Wealthy Angrily Refuse"

It gets reported that way because that's the way it usually happens.

Truth hurts, doesn't it?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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