News


Tiny mouse looms large over levee project

Endangered species complicate effort to bolster flood control near San Francisquito Creek

It stands less than an inch tall, sports a cinnamon belly, munches on pickleweed and spends its nights dodging owls and raptors in the Palo Alto Baylands.

Now, this tiny critter threatens to delay a $16.7 million, regional flood-control plan that took years to formulate and that aims to protect Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park from the dreaded 100-year flood.

Behold the salt marsh harvest mouse.

The mouse weighs only about 20 grams, but its tiny frame is casting a large shadow over the environmental-review process for the flood-control project, which has already received the blessings of all three cities. As an endangered species, it is protected by reams of state and federal regulations, including ones overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These days, as Fish and Wildlife considers granting a permit to the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority for the flood-control project, the safety of the tiny, tawny mouse has become a big concern.

Last month, Fish and Wildlife indicated in a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- the agency coordinating the project on the federal level -- that the environmental analysis conducted so far doesn't fully satisfy its concerns about endangered species. Fish and Wildlife is particularly focused on the Faber Tract and the adjacent Laumeister Tract in East Palo Alto, large swaths of marshland in the northwestern portion of the Palo Alto Baylands that is a home to dozens of California clapper rails, an endangered bird, and that boasts "an important population of the salt marsh harvest mouse," according to Fish and Wildlife.

The environmental agency, which is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, took issue with the alternative chosen by the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, which would widen channels by reconstructing levees in the downstream area, including at the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course. Another alternative that the creek authority evaluated during the environmental review was creating a new bypass channel on the golf course for flood water.

Fish and Wildlife argue that the selected alternative, by pushing water to the Faber Tract during floods, reduces the land clapper rails and harvest mice would have for escaping predators. It also takes issue with the assertion that the flood-control project "is not likely to adversely affect the California clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse."

"Since most predation on California clapper rails and salt marsh harvest mice occur during flood events, the Service believes that the proposed increases in the frequency, duration and height of flood flows within the Faber Tract and loss of availability of upland refugia cover will result in a significant increase in the rates of predation," Fish and Wildlife stated in the July 3 letter.

The project, the agency argues, "has the potential to have severe adverse effects to the California clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse."

"The Service believes that the Corps and JPA should implement other alternatives to reduce flood risk in San Francisquito Creek such as passing flood flows through the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course ... rather than through the Faber Tract."

If the creek authority chooses to proceed with the project as designed, it would have to include more than a dozen mitigations, including a new "upland refugia" for the rail and the mouse. This could mean installation of "marsh mounds" for the two species near or within the Faber and Laumeiser tracts. The creek authority was also directed by Fish and Wildlife to regularly monitor rodent traps to ensure that no salt marsh harvest mice were captured and to report any instances of captured harvest mice to the agency.

Len Materman, executive director of the creek authority (an agency that includes elected officials from the three cities, as well as from the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the San Mateo Flood Control District), said the group is in ongoing negotiations with Fish and Wildlife about the proposed mitigations. The creek authority, he noted, already thoroughly studied the golf-course alternative during its environmental review, and officials concluded that it would cause "significantly greater" harm than with the channel-widening option.

Materman told the Weekly the agency doesn't expect the concerns from Fish and Wildlife to ultimately delay the project. However, the criticisms have already prompted the creek authority to change the sequence of its work. The authority applied for the permits in March and was hoping to have them in place in time to start in-channel work in early September. That now seems highly unlikely. And given that the agency isn't allowed to work in the creek after mid-October because of the presence of steelhead trout, in-channel work will now have to be deferred until next year, Materman said.

At the same time, Materman said, the agency is confident that it will get the permits without delays to the overall project. Some of the mitigations proposed by Fish and Wildlife are already part of the project, while others will be integrated into the design. These include the marsh mounds. The creek authority, he said, has been working with Fish and Wildlife and with the Bay Conservation and Development Commission to determine the locations and designs of the mounds.

"We are looking to incorporate new mounds into the design of the project to address that concern," Materman said.

With the channel off limits because of permitting complications, the agency has been focusing on other elements of the project, including work with PG&E on alterations to electric lines crossing the creek and with the East Palo Alto Sanitary District to deal with a sewer line crossing the creek.

"What we're really focused on now is: What kind of things can we do outside the channel so that we can get these things out of the way?" Materman said.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 10, 2013 at 9:35 pm

So dumb.. In better times we'd ignore mice.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Palo Parent
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 10, 2013 at 10:00 pm

First they came for the Dodo Birds,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a DoDo.

Then they came for the Passenger Pigeons,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Passenger Pigeon.

Then they came for the Salamanders,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Salamander.

Then they came for the Salt Marsh Harvest mice,
and there was no one left to speak for me.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Joe Di Matteo
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 11, 2013 at 8:44 am

Gena: I'm interested to learn more about the role of the Army Corps of Engineers in this specific project. You write that they will be "coordinating the project on the federal level". What specifically will they be doing?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Kate
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 11, 2013 at 9:15 am

This is ridiculous. This is about flooding. lot of homes and property values now depend on A MOUSE? [Portion removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by David
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 11, 2013 at 2:06 pm

The project can still happen with the salt marsh harvest mouse, but it requires a biologist to help with identificaiton, relocation and protection while the project is underway. At the completion, there will be significant mitigation efforts like planting pickle weed and other vegetation that will benefit the SMH mouse.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by When-The-Cat's-Away
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 12, 2013 at 10:10 am

Maybe it's time to re-introduce the Palo Alto ground cat to the marshlands. If these mice were to disappear, the maybe we could get on with fixing the levees.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Barbara
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 12, 2013 at 11:44 am

Thank you, Palo Parent, for your posting. . .Really enjoyed it and totally agree!! Save the Mouse!!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Marco Graziano
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 12, 2013 at 11:48 am

My respect and support to the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to push the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority to look for alternatives that would save the Salt Marsh Harvest mice. We often see them around our office on East Bayshore. It is time to be serious about protecting the great Bay Area habitat.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 12, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Isn't there some kind of a "speak now or forever hold your peace" rule that governs input for this sort of project? That mouse and the clapper rail were not recently introduced into the baylands, so how can this just now be surfacing as an issue?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by cid young
a resident of another community
on Aug 12, 2013 at 12:58 pm

"That mouse and the clapper rail were not recently introduced into the baylands, so how can this just now be surfacing as an issue?"

Because normally Developers looking to put in a big project are hoping others won't notice they are trying to side-step the destruction of habitat issues, big money is at stake. What's being introduced into the baylands is the "$16.7 million, regional flood-control plan that took years to formulate"


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Dennis
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 12, 2013 at 1:28 pm

When-The-Cat's-Away, but then we'd have to introduce the Palo Alto ground dog to control the Palo Alto ground cat which would create an opening for the dreaded Cal Bears to move in to Berkeleyize Palo Alto. Hmm, maybe not a bad idea.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 12, 2013 at 1:42 pm

I'm sure all the residents in the flood zone will appreciate that their homes are a sacrifice to a 20-gram mouse.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by SlyOne
a resident of Meadow Park
on Aug 12, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Food chain = plants -> mice -> raptors. This is not silly stuff. Remove mice, and plants and birds are out of balance. Not clear what the effects of that will be. For example, remove wolves from Yellowstone and elk population soars; elk eat plants and saplings. Fewer berry producing plants affect hibernating bears. Reintroduce wolves and certain plants and tress are making a comeback. Can't justify every objection to environmental concerns by overvaluing development. Try eliminating developement in 100 year flood plains.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Nora Charles
a resident of Stanford
on Aug 12, 2013 at 4:01 pm

How arrogant we humans are to judge worth and value by species and size.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Stanford
on Aug 12, 2013 at 5:23 pm

Shame on the Weekly for sensationalizing this story. There are much deeper and broader ecological consequences behind this project. Framing the problem as "mouse" vs. "flood" is oversimplifying the situation. The Mouse is one part (and an important part) of a much larger living system.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by HB
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 12, 2013 at 8:55 pm

The worst flood ever recorded on the San Francisquito Creek was a 48-year flood in 1998. Record keeping began in 1849. There is no record of a 100-year flood.

Apparently the 100-flood protection level is required for the project to become eligible for federal funding and to lower flood insurance rates for some upstream residents.

These fiscal goals require unnecessarily intensive construction, increase the magnitude of the environmental impacts, and preclude an ecologically benign project.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Aug 12, 2013 at 9:45 pm

David - thank you for your clarifying comment!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by When-The-Cat's-Away
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 13, 2013 at 9:46 am

> The worst flood ever recorded on the San Francisquito Creek
> was a 48-year flood in 1998. Record keeping began in 1849.
> There is no record of a 100-year flood.

I've seen several claims about the magnitude of the 1998 flood. What source are you using for the 48-year flood title?

What's interesting about this idea of a 100-year flood is that the magnitude of a 100-year flood is determined using real flood data, but extrapolating (typically using linear regression techniques) the 100-year flood size. So, we end up with the size of the largest flood in the last 100 years, and the extrapolated value of a flood that meets our mathematical model. It's totally possible that no flood will occur that comes close to the hypothetical value of the so-called 100-year flood.

> Apparently the 100-flood protection level is required for the project to
> become eligible for federal funding and to lower flood insurance
> rates for some upstream residents.

True.

Given the nature of the nation-wide FEMA flood insurance program, it's pretty clear that many of these requirements are driven by the Fed's desire to be able to not manage this program into bankruptcy by forcing communities to do the best job they can to engage planning practices that will reduce/eliminate future flooding.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Alex
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 13, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Sad that the issue is trivialized by the media.

For those of you who doubt the importance of shoreline conservation, ask the folks in New Orleans what happened when the Louisiana delta disappeared.

Habitat conservation is the most important thing we can do to save the planet - it saves species, it consumes C02, it gives us health, it saves us from flooding (if it's shoreline/estuary habitat) ...

The key word here is mitigation. Development can continue if we can set aside key shoreline habitat that is guaranteed to be conserved.

We are VERY lucky here in the Bay Area. We have much of our shoreline still - go take a walk at Baylands in Palo Alto this winter and see just how amazing our baylands are and how we have to save them.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by JustMe
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 13, 2013 at 3:44 pm

I am the Lorax, who speaks for the trees,
Which you seem to be cutting as fast as you please.

But I also speak for the the Salt Marsh Harvest mice,
Who you seem to dislike, but who really is nice.

I'm particularly dismayed by your lack of concern
For the living wonders upon whom, your back, you turn.

In all of my years, one thing have I learned:
I have no concern for those unconcerned.

So hang your bad project, go back to your house,
Between you and this creature, I will choose the mouse.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by When-The-Cat's-Away
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2013 at 7:34 am

> For those of you who doubt the importance of shoreline conservation,'
> ask the folks in New Orleans what happened when the Louisiana
> delta disappeared

New Orleans was built under water. One can find people commenting on that fact in books and newspapers over 150 years ago.

Shoreline conservation had nothing to do with the levee failures that led to the flooding of NO. The City should never have been built where it was built in the first place.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Palo Parent
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 15, 2013 at 1:35 pm

JustMe: You done one-upped me, good job!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by JustMe
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 15, 2013 at 2:32 pm

"JustMe: You done one-upped me, good job!"

Hehehe, but I liked your post too, so true.

Another Seuss to draw on would be to paraphrase him and say "A creature is a creature, no matter how small." I am distressed by the number of people willing to dismiss this mouse and condemn him to extinction, citing his size as justification. How wrong-thinking can you be?

I think that we all must understand this distinction:
There is no return from the land of Extinction.


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