Menlo Park inches closer to 'hypercompetitive' $50 million grant to combat sea level rise | November 19, 2021 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

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News - November 19, 2021

Menlo Park inches closer to 'hypercompetitive' $50 million grant to combat sea level rise

by By Kate Bradshaw

In a bid seeking funding for a pricey project to protect the bayshore from sea level rise, the city of Menlo Park has teamed up with PG&E and Meta (formerly Facebook) to apply for a $50 million grant from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The grant is part of FEMA's new "Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities" program, aimed at providing grants to help jurisdictions with projects to mitigate the threat of natural disasters and reduce the risk of injuries, loss of life, or damage to critical services and infrastructure, according to a project summary. The highly competitive federal grant program received 991 subapplications, 406 of which have been selected for further review, according to an announcement on the FEMA website.

"The city (of Menlo Park) was the only project sponsor to be selected in this country" for further consideration at the maximum amount of $50 million, said Public Works Director Nikki Nagaya.

The program, said Councilman Ray Mueller at the council's Nov. 9 meeting, is "hypercompetitive."

"To get a full allocation with our partners is tremendous," he added.

Councilwoman Jen Wolosin talked about the importance of a regional coordination to tackle sea level rise throughout the San Francisco Bay. Otherwise, she said, "sea level rise is a little bit like Whack-a-Mole. You fix it in one place and it pops up in another."

The council also talked Nov. 9 about whether the city should move forward in signaling its commitment to lead the ambitious project should it be selected to receive the funds, and what that might mean for the city.

In a study session, members signaled support for the project, indicating support for the next legal steps to move forward with the possibility, such as signing a memorandum of understanding of what the city's commitments would be if selected for the grant, adding a provisional full-time employee for at least a three-year term to help lead the project, and researching additional funding sources to maintain a positive cash flow during the project, to start.

The city has joined forces with the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, Meta and PG&E to apply for the federal grant to secure a 3.7-mile section of the Peninsula shoreline in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto from sea level rise, including parts of Bayfront Expressway. It's part of the SAFER Bay project, an effort led by the creek joint powers authority to provide flood protection, restore ecosystems and offer recreation along the Bay in East Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Palo Alto.

The entire SAFER Bay project is estimated to cost a whopping $130 million, according to staff, while the part of the project under discussion is estimated at about $67.7 million, according to FEMA.

The section of the shoreline under discussion includes a portion near Meta's original Menlo Park campus and PG&E's Ravenswood substation, which provides power to customers from San Mateo to Palo Alto, according to a staff report. PG&E has offered to pay $10 million and Meta has offered to pay $7.8 million toward the project.

The proposed project would build a series of levees using "nature-based solutions" and include the habitat restoration of 550 acres of former salt ponds, according to the project summary.

"The Menlo Park SAFER Bay project demonstrates how climate mitigation and adaptation can go hand in hand by utilizing nature-based solutions to protect critical electric and transportation infrastructure from sea level rise, which in turn will support Menlo Park's and neighboring communities' efforts to meet their Climate Action Plans and decarbonization efforts," wrote Lauren Swezey, sustainability and landscape project lead for Meta, in a letter supporting the project.

The proposed project is complex, large and expected to take about five years to design, get permits and build, according to staff. If Menlo Park is awarded the grant, the City Council should vote to either hire consultants or additional provisional staff to manage the project, city staff said.

Another challenge, according to city staff, is that FEMA reimburses the lead agency for expenses, which sometimes can take six months, so managing a positive cash flow while waiting for the project reimbursements to come in will likely take additional staff work to navigate.

The FEMA decision on whether Menlo Park will receive the grant is expected no sooner than January. From there, the likely earliest possible date for the project to be completed would be July 2027, according to staff.

Email Staff Writer Kate Bradshaw at [email protected]

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