County to expand flood district to create 'resilient shoreline'

Restored land sits adjacent to salt ponds at Bedwell Bayfront Park in Menlo Park near the Bay. Further efforts along the Bay are needed to decrease flood risks in the case of sea level rise. (Photo by Magali Gauthier/The Almanac.)

Flooding isn't a new problem in San Mateo County: In 1959, the county formed a flood control district, which today has an annual budget of $3.8 million. But with the threat of climate change-driven sea level rise and continued development along the Bay, there's a new urgency in the county to combat a series of water-related threats to the county's well-being.

In response to this urgency, the county has proposed to expand the existing flood control district to address climate change-related threats like coastal erosion and sea level rise.

San Mateo County – bordered by water on two sides, is highly vulnerable to the impacts of sea level rise. One study reported that by 2100, sea level rise plus a bad storm could damage up to $34 billion in property along the Bay and coast in San Mateo County.

In 2016, the county started a flood resilience program aimed at fixing flood risks that cross city boundaries. It's working on three projects throughout the county; the nearest is a project to improve water quality and mitigate flooding by making improvements to the Bayfront Canal, which includes areas in Redwood City, Atherton and Menlo Park near Bayfront Expressway, Haven Avenue and Marsh Road.

That project will reroute canal flows to the South Bay Salt Pond restoration area and install new underground conduits from the Bayfront Canal at the upstream side of the existing tide gates to a new outlet near the South Bay Salt Pond restoration area. A device to capture floating debris and keep trash from going into the Bay would also be installed.

In 2017, the City/County Association of Governments started a "Countywide Water Coordination Committee," which lined up an advisory team, and together the groups recommended forming a comprehensive water management agency.

In March 2018, Congresswoman Jackie Speier called for a single countywide agency to address the challenges of flooding, sea level rise and coastal erosion, which could work across city boundaries, avoid repeating efforts, and have a unified voice to more easily access state and federal funding for those efforts. According to a staff report, the county and the various cities and jurisdictions have had more difficulty in getting grant funding than counties that have dedicated agencies working to reduce flooding and sea level rise. Yet a 2017 study by the National Institute of Building Sciences found that every $1 spent on hazard mitigation can save the U.S. $6 in future disaster costs.

According to Erika Powell, flood resilience program manager with San Mateo County, funding and permitting agencies tend to support projects that are regional and collaborative.

Rather than start a new water management agency from scratch, however, the county plans to expand the scope of the existing San Mateo County Flood Protection District to also respond to sea level rise, flooding and coastal erosion threats, plus make large-scale stormwater infrastructure improvements. The expanded agency would be called the Flood and Sea Level Rise Resiliency Agency.

To enact these changes, legislation has to be passed at the state level first. According to Powell, state Assemblymember Kevin Mullin (D-San Mateo) has brought forward Assembly Bill 825, which, if passed, would change the flood control district to incorporate sea level rise resiliency efforts, and change the governing and funding structure of the existing district to become a separate agency.

The bill is going through the state Senate now, and may be approved by the governor in September, Powell said.

If the bill passes, starting next Jan. 1, the existing district would be altered so that instead of being subject to the Board of Supervisors, it would be governed by seven board members: two members of the Board of Supervisors – including the coastside (District 3) representative; and five city council members from across the county, with four representing north, central, south and coastal areas, and the fifth an at-large representative.

According to Powell, San Mateo County's City/County Association of Governments has collected applications for the board and is preparing to have a "board-in-waiting" starting in July to prepare for the agency's potential launch come January.

The governing board would hire as staff an executive director, and bring in two county staff members working on cross-jurisdictional flood projects. More staffer members and consultant help would be recruited as needed.

The plan to fund the expanded agency is less clear. To start the agency, the county has asked for an additional initial budget of $1.5 million each year for three years.

Across the county, Powell explained, small cities were asked to pay $25,000 each, medium-sized cities were asked to pay $40,000, and larger cities were asked to pay $55,000. So far, all 20 cities and towns have signed resolutions committing to pay these amounts, she said.

The county plans to match city contributions with $750,000 in funding contributions planned for each of the first three years.

Menlo Park's City Council agreed in late February to pay the $40,000 requested.

The flood control district is now funded by property tax revenue collected from the county's three flood zones; the money is spent within those zones, Powell explained. Those funds can only be spent in the areas in which they're generated.

During the first three years, which the county is calling a "startup period," the agency would develop an investment plan to figure out which projects to fund and how to pay for them. Powell said she expects the county to put out an RFQ (a "request for qualifications") seeking consultants to aid in developing the investment strategy in the coming months.

Those forming the agency will also explore options for long-term funding, work on existing flood resiliency projects and continue to provide existing flood control services.

After the first three years are up, the plan is for the agency to have identified and established a source of more sustainable funding – for instance, an infrastructure financing district, a geologic hazard abatement district or a targeted special tax – but if the financing plan isn't complete by then, the county may ask for up to two more years of voluntary city payments.

Public meeting on Bayfront Canal

A public meeting to talk about the proposed changes to the Bayfront Canal will be held Tuesday, June 18, from 4 to 5 p.m. at Deerfield Realty, 3715 Haven Ave. in Menlo Park. It will be geared toward the local business community.

Access a one-page overview of the proposed project here.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story suggested that the funding generated from the flood zones could be used elsewhere in the county. That is incorrect, according to Powell.


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