News


Officials unveil first phase of San Francisquito Creek flood protection

More than 1,000 homes are now safe from a 100-year flood event

Rock and an expanded flood plain will spread the floodwater from San Francisquito Creek and carry it to San Francisco Bay during major storms, helping to eliminate floods upstream and in East Palo Alto's Gardens neighborhood. Photo by Sue Dremann.

Under dark clouds and an eventual downpour, public officials on Friday unveiled the completed first phase of a San Francisquito Creek project that aims to protect 1,000 homes from a 100-year flood event during an extreme high tide.

The $76 million Phase 1 project is also designed to protect East Palo Alto homes against sea-level rise that could be 10 feet higher than today, officials said.

The end of the first phase caps more than 60 years of debate to finally address dangerous flooding along the creek, which has been exacerbated by upstream development that eliminated permeable ground that absorbed rainwater and the construction of homes and businesses in the flood plain.

Officials created the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority -- a five-member coalition including representatives from the cities of Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and Palo Alto, the San Mateo County Flood Control District and the Santa Clara Valley Water District -- to fix flooding after storms in February 1998 caused the creek to overflow. The floods affected 1,700 homes and businesses in the three cities and caused more than $28 million in damage. The JPA's ultimate goal is to protect more than 5,700 homes and businesses in East Palo Alto, Palo Alto and Menlo Park.

Phase 1 of the project covered the creek and surrounding flood plain from San Francisco Bay to U.S. Highway 101. The improvements include a widened creek channel in East Palo Alto and at the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course, which will help move water faster to the bay and prevent backups; a horizontal levee that is adaptable to sea-level rise; and enhanced habitat and environmental improvements for wildlife and endangered species.

The project has also improved connections for pedestrians and bicyclists between the creek and adjacent marsh by adding a boardwalk at the Friendship Bridge between East Palo Alto and Palo Alto as well as improving trail access. The project will add thousands of new plants for wildlife.

The first phase restored a total of 22 acres of marsh. The Palo Alto golf course had the biggest gain in native habitat. Twelve acres of golf course land were used for widening the creek flood plain, JPA Executive Director Len Materman said.

The massive undertaking involved Pacific Gas & Electric relocating a gas pipeline and cooperation with state and federal agencies to receive permits and protect the habitat for the federally protected salt marsh harvest mouse and Ridgway's rail. The California Department of Transportation also added another culvert and improvements to alleviate a constriction under Highway 101 during the highway bridge replacement on both East and West Bayshore roads.

On Friday, as the storm clouds gathered, flocks of mud hens pecked in the shallows and the widened flood plain looking for insects while geese and ducks trawled the waters of the Faber Marsh. The rooflines of dozens of homes, which back up to the marshlands, still sit below the levee, a reminder of the times when the creek overflowed in major storms and the neighborhood flooded, putting lives at risk.

In December 2012, the creek again overflowed and damaged the protective mud levees, prompting then-East Palo Alto Mayor Ruben Abrica to seek and receive an emergency declaration and funding from Gov. Jerry Brown for temporary repairs.

But now the homes, including that of current East Palo Alto Mayor Lisa Gauthier, are safe, said Gary Kremen, Joint Powers chair and director at the Santa Clara Valley Water District. The JPA is now looking to the second project phase, upstream of Highway 101, which would include areas in Palo Alto that flooded in 1998. That event alone affected 11,000 homes and caused 1,000 people to be evacuated in East Palo Alto, Palo Alto and Menlo Park, he noted.

Gauthier noted that, during one of the flood events that affected her street, she had put on her rain boots before venturing out. As she waded through the rising water, she wondered if she was going to need higher boots, she said. The dangers for East Palo Alto were particularly great because there are so many seniors living in the community, she said.

Abrica recalled that in 1998, when he was on the Ravenswood City School District Board of Education, he called out district school buses to help transport residents from the evacuated area.

Dennis Parker and his wife, East Palo Alto flood victims, lost everything in two floods from the creek, in 1955 and 1998.

"We feel safe for the first time since 1998," he said.

Materman said the project will protect more than homes and property. The creek flooding also endangers and damages open spaces, local parks and the golf course.

"You can be assured this creek will not threaten the spaces that you love," he said.

Concerns about the volatile and unpredictable creek and the effort to repair it have spanned more than six decades. After the 1955 flood, the Palo Alto City Council discussed working collaboratively with other jurisdictions, Kremen noted. But there was little forward movement until after 1998.

Receiving proper permitting from federal agencies concerned with wetland and endangered-species protections proved to be one of the most challenging aspects of the project, officials said.

U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, who attended Friday's event, said she fought hard to get the permits so the project could move forward.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was to receive $7 million for a feasibility study, but then-President George W. Bush's administration did not include the money in the federal budget, necessitating a local effort to fund the project.

"You notice that no federal money went into this project. If that was the case, we'd still be debating this," Speier said, lauding the power of local and regional collaboration.

Palo Alto Mayor Liz Kniss said the 1998 flood was a wake-up call. Kniss, a city councilwoman at the time, recalled that night when the council meeting ran very late. As the rain outside poured down, water began to drip inside the council chambers, she recalled.

"There was no early-warning system," she said.

It wasn't until the next morning on her way to work that the full impact of the flooding was apparent, she said. Kniss did not live in a section of town that was flooded, but she realized the city had experienced something significant when she could not cross the highway.

"I don't know how many lawsuits we had accusing us of not being prepared," she said.

During the ceremony on Friday, at about 11:30 a.m., the skies opened up and the rain began to pour as a squall blew across the new levees. State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said it was fitting that the weather would turn rainy on the day of the project's unveiling.

"Let it rain. Let it rain. Let it rain," he said.

Materman said plans for the upstream phase, which includes decisions to be made regarding Palo Alto's narrow Chaucer Bridge, are underway. The JPA expects to release a public Draft Environmental Impact Report by the end of February that will be available for public comment. The JPA is working on a funding package and will also apply for permits. If all goes well, the project construction could begin in 2020, he said.

While the first phase had problems obtaining permits, Materman said he is hopeful that the one-and-a-half years of working with regulatory agencies will bear fruit and allow the upstream project to go through more quickly.

Palo Alto is managing a separate environmental review for a replacement of the Newell Road Bridge, another choke point for San Francisquito Creek. The Draft EIR for that project is also scheduled to be released early next year.

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Comments

14 people like this
Posted by Rational
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 16, 2018 at 9:05 am

Good writing, but really needed a map or graphic showing the new changes and areas of homes that are better off as a result. Second, the Baylands loop ... open now?


11 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 16, 2018 at 11:43 am

Does this mean that the trail/bridge are now open, including cleanup? For some reason, none of the announcements seem to mention this.

Web Link




10 people like this
Posted by Nguyen Thuy
a resident of Ventura
on Dec 16, 2018 at 12:48 pm

I catch small salmon in San Francisquito Creek once. Blocked off stream with rocks. Brought home and ate for dinner.


11 people like this
Posted by Gus L.
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 16, 2018 at 4:59 pm

Nguyen, you might want to check on fishing regulations before you take endangered Salmon from local spawning creeks..


10 people like this
Posted by A Fly Fisherman
a resident of another community
on Dec 16, 2018 at 5:28 pm

> I catch small salmon in San Francisquito Creek once. Blocked off stream with rocks. Brought home and ate for dinner.

Not very sporting Nguyen and probably illegal.

In the Philippines, villagers are known to block off streams and then toss an M-80 into the water. The fish are shocked by the concussion and then flop onto the banks where they are quickly gathered.

Not exactly "A River Runs Through It' fishing experience but cultural practices will tend to vary.

'Catch and release' is an oxymoron over there.


15 people like this
Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 17, 2018 at 4:24 am

Great progress, particularly for East Palo Alto residents -- potential Katrina-like disaster avoided. But remember that the Chaucer and Newell bridges are still a big problem for Palo Alto so looking forward to seeing progress on the upstream phase of the project.


7 people like this
Posted by Green Gabes
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 17, 2018 at 11:48 am

The flood was NOT a surprise to the then City Manager of Palo Alto as the firemen went to her house to help get out the occupants. Again, Mayor Liz Kniss still has no clue about what was happening during that storm nor does she have a clue what is happening now. Just a politician. My neighbors were flooded out of their homes.


1 person likes this
Posted by Green Gabes
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 17, 2018 at 11:49 am

The flood was NOT a surprise to the then City Manager of Palo Alto as the firemen went to her house to help get out the occupants. Again, Mayor Liz Kniss still has no clue about what was happening during that storm nor does she have a clue what is happening now. My neighbors were flooded out of their homes.


2 people like this
Posted by Nguyen Thuy
a resident of Ventura
on Dec 17, 2018 at 1:48 pm

> 'Catch and release' is an oxymoron over there.

I looked up oxymoron to find meaning.

Why catch and release food? Might as well go hungry.


1 person likes this
Posted by EPA Gardens Resident
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Dec 17, 2018 at 2:32 pm

EPA Gardens Resident is a registered user.

First a clarification, and then a correction:
> "The project has also improved connections for pedestrians and bicyclists between the creek and adjacent marsh by adding a boardwalk at the Friendship Bridge between East Palo Alto and Palo Alto."

The creek was widened at the Friendship Bridge by cutting into the bank at the golf course. The boardwalk was added as an extension to the bridge to span the additional width.

> "Dennis Parker and his wife, East Palo Alto flood victims, lost everything in two floods from the creek, in 1955 and 1998."

Dennis Parker did not move to East Palo Alto until 1999. His future wife evacuated with the kids during the 1998 event. Most of the homes on the upper end of the Gardens neighborhood received no damage. Houses adjacent to the levee had muddy water containing debris and toxins inundated the ground floor of their homes, but "lost everything" is a bit of an exaggeration.




2 people like this
Posted by mike
a resident of another community
on Dec 17, 2018 at 3:39 pm

I rode the new section today from the ball park to the friendship bridge - very fancy! The section toward the runway is not yet paved. Beware of the 11th hole tees - golf balls will strike you - wear your helmet!


5 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 17, 2018 at 3:58 pm

Is there a plan to pave the trail around the airport? It was unpaved and very muddy during the rainy season before this project started. Paving it be a big improvement for winter users.


8 people like this
Posted by Joe Meyers
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 17, 2018 at 6:47 pm

Trunks of fallen trees, overgrowth of underbrush, and lots of trash is sitting in the upstream creekbed. Every summer and autumn we should be routinely cleaning all of this out, so that debris does not undo the effect of all of our fine (and costly) improvements.


1 person likes this
Posted by Stephen
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 17, 2018 at 9:06 pm

It is good to see things moving along (finally). One issue that I wish the article had addressed (i.e. perhaps follow-on work for the PAW reporter) is how the work will be funded. The work is needed, but in the interest of full transparency it would be good to know who is contributing what to pay for the project.


2 people like this
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Dec 18, 2018 at 3:20 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

Norman Beamer - this article is about the *just completed phase of the project*, and the next phase is mentioned. *This article* is more specifically about those who lives on the east side in *E. Palo Alto*, and is not about *Palo Alto*, because it's not *all about Palo Alto*. Once again, a PA resident tries to make it all about PA, and can't just let it be about E. Palo Alto, and that's quite telling.


4 people like this
Posted by Jordan D'Amoto
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 19, 2018 at 11:25 am

How many years have passed since February 1998? This is too little too late. The JPA continues to offer us any real solutions. They've been selling us moldy cheese for years.
Clean out the agency and stop this needless spending. Do it right and work better with the US Army Corps to get this fixed.
Enough with the moldly cheese!


1 person likes this
Posted by Facts Matter
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 19, 2018 at 12:47 pm

@ Jordan
I did the math for you and it has been 20 years since 1998.
Afraid you got it backward on the process. The first 10 years after the flood was focused on forming a new government agency to bridge the two counties and then to pursue the Corp of Engineers as the lead agency for studies and construction. Starting in 2009, that approach was put as a parallel path and the local funding plan was pursued. Since then, Congress eliminates earmarks which are how much of the federal projects got funded. Putting together local regional and state dollars is how this stretch and the key 101 bottleneck got done. The EIR for the upstream project will be coming out in the next months and then an upstream design can be selected. There is already most of the funding lined up to replace Newell and Chaucer bridges.
On the other hand, the JPA could follow your complaint and go back to the Corp to beg for dollars for the next 20 years and have nothing happen. And go tell East Palo Alto that this is too little, too late. This provides them historic protection of their homes and lives.


4 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 20, 2018 at 12:06 pm

This story starts at the end of the water system. The front of this water system is the dam on SU property that is more than 100 years old. Much has been written and discussed about the dam with all of the plusses and negatives. A similar dam and problems was on the Carmel river and it was broken down and moved so that water can empty on a continual basis and flooding of the down stream city of Carmel is now eliminated. Yes you have corrected one portion of the problem but the source of the problem has not been addressed. Typical backward problem definition and resolution.
Please when reporting then report on the system from end to end and what is expected to resolve the upper river problem of the dam.


4 people like this
Posted by Jordan D'Amoto
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 26, 2018 at 2:29 pm

How long does it take to get this right? The JPA lost the way with their puny proposals.
Quit selling us that this will be fixed anytime soon. Stop selling us moldy formage!
You are sounding like our President.


Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 27, 2018 at 1:36 pm

[Post removed.]


4 people like this
Posted by A Duveneck resident
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 4, 2019 at 4:05 pm

Hello JPA,
Get this fixed and quit fussy pooting around. We have the money but not the will or the engineering brains. Do you understand how much cubic volume (molecular weight) water coming under the Pope Chaucer Bridge can handle? Apparently not. Get some more leadership in the JPA and council members that really ask tough questions.


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

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