14 November, 2012

Flood-control project flows ahead

Palo Alto City Council backs plan to boost protection from San Francisquito Creek
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.

The Palo Alto City Council on Tuesday night 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.

The creek authority's proposal, which targets the area between the San Francisco Bay and U.S. Highway 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 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 last month.

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 next year, 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.

Vice Mayor Greg Scharff was one of many council members to voice enthusiasm about the project. Scharff said he is "thrilled" about the proposed improvements. The city, he said, has been "living on borrowed time."

"The fact that we're bringing it to fruition is a huge win for our community," Scharff said. "In terms of the city's liability, in terms of protecting our residents and, possibly, in terms of not having our residents pay for flood insurance -- all of those are huge wins for our community."

Councilman Pat Burt, who chairs the creek authority's board of directors, said the council should be "pretty happy with this major step," as well as those on the horizon.

"We finally have the potential to not only address one of our most important emergency-preparedness needs, but it's also a disaster-prevention need," Burt said. "As we've seen in the last few weeks 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."

His colleagues generally agreed, with Gail Price saying she was "very excited" about the coming improvements and Mayor Yiaway Yeh calling the project a "great opportunity."

Even Holman, the lone dissenter, said she is "very, very supportive" of the flood-control effort. She dissented on procedural grounds and argued that the council should have been given more opportunity to publicly review the environmental documents.

"I'm just not comfortable putting my name and vote on something that has not been reviewed by me personally," Holman said.

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

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