Xenia Hammer and her neighbors in Palo Alto's Crescent Park neighborhood watched with anxiety as water toppled over the banks of San Francisquito Creek on Saturday morning, submerging streets around the volatile creek and sparking emergency warnings from the city.
For Hammer, who lives near Eleanor Pardee Park, the sight was both rare and familiar. Though normally tame during drought years, the creek is known for creating devastation during storms as water from the foothills and Stanford University land races downstream toward U.S. Highway 101 and through residential neighborhoods in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto. Residents scarcely need to be reminded of the February 1998 storm, which flooded 1,700 properties, required hundreds of people to evacuate, caused tens of millions of dollars in property damage, and submerged the highway.
"It's very scary and stressful to watch the creek levels creeping up," Hammer said. "I saw so many neighbors outside looking at floodwater and being very worried. It's been 25 years since the last flood and there is no excuse for being in that situation here."
For Hammer and other residents near the creek, the anxiety comes with a palpable sense of frustration. The Pope-Chaucer Bridge, which crosses the creek and connects Crescent Park and Menlo Park's Willows neighborhood, remains vulnerable to flooding despite two decades of discussions about the need to rebuild the 1940s structure with one that has greater water-flow capacity.
Pope-Chaucer Bridge held up on Dec. 31 but just barely, with city gauges showing water rising up to about 21 feet, close to the span's 24-foot capacity, before dipping as rain subsided. In other areas along the creek, including Woodland Avenue in East Palo Alto and Hale Street in Palo Alto, water pooled on the streets, prompting street closures and warnings from the city calling for residents to move their valuables to higher locations and to be prepared for evacuations.
The morning anxiety gave way to afternoon relief as water gauges in upstream areas of Stanford University showed water levels dropping — an indication that the worst had passed and that downstream areas in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park would not be on the receiving end of another deluge.
The U.S. Geological Survey subsequently revised its figures and concluded that the water flows peaked at 6,340 cubic feet per second (cfs), down from its initial estimate of about 7,400 cfs. And by 12:30 p.m., the water at Pope-Chaucer Bridge had dropped by about 18 inches from its peak level, according to Mayor Pat Burt, who toured various flood-prone areas during the storm.
Thomas Rindfleisch, a Crescent Park resident and longtime advocate for creek improvements, spent his Dec. 31 morning monitoring water gauges in the foothills and updating his neighbors through an email list. He became startled when he checked the gauge at about 9 a.m. and saw the spike in reported water flow on Stanford land. He recalled looking at the measurements and thinking, "Oh my God! We're headed for disaster!"
"Things were really, really scary early in the morning. I started sending out messages to try to let people know what's going on so that they can begin their day," he said.
For him, the storm served as both a mark of progress for the regional flood-control effort and a stark reminder of how much business remains unfinished. The San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, an agency whose board consists of elected officials from the three cities around the creek and from the two water agencies that serve these communities, has been working on improving flood protection around the creek for nearly two decades.
The agency was created after the 1998 flood and celebrated a major victory in June 2019 when it completed the first of three major projects in the most vulnerable area, located between the U.S. Highway 101 and the Bay. Known as "Reach 1," the project included widening the channel, building new levees and floodwalls and creating a marsh plain near Palo Alto's golf course. The project, then and now, was seen as a necessary step for pursuing projects further upstream, including replacement of the Newell Road Bridge between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, the Pope-Chaucer Bridge.
Creek authority officials and residents credited this work, as well as a concurrent effort by the California Department of Transportation to increase creek flow capacity at U.S. Highway 101, for limiting the flood damage during this week's storms. Over the past decade, Caltrans had updated culverts under the highway and added a new one to boost flow capacity and prevent the type of pooling that occurred in 1998.
Margaret Bruce, who in 2020 took over as executive director of the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, said the downstream work was "very significant."
"We protected that whole neighborhood — a very large segment of East Palo Alto," Bruce said in an interview. "It was incredibly successful and incredibly important."
But while Hammer and Rindfleisch both share that sentiment, they are quick to point out that the downstream work has done little to protect their neighborhood and those further upstream. Here, work has progressed at a snail's pace thanks to a combination of bureaucracy, litigation, funding shortages and design revisions.
"It's very, very frustrating for me. I'm a doer, I want to get things done. And the whole process is sluggish; it's overburdened by red tape," Rindfleisch said.
Not every resident has shared his excitement about moving ahead with the proposed flood improvements. In 2019, Menlo Park resident Peter Joshua sued the creek authority, alleging that its environmental analysis for the Pope-Chaucer replacement failed to consider an appropriate range of alternatives. (A California appeals court judge struck down his argument in August 2022, clearing the way for the project to proceed.)
And in 2020, an attorney for Palo Alto resident Yang Shen, who lives near the creek, issued a letter challenging the city's plans for the replacement of the Newell Road Bridge and protesting the impact the construction would bring to his Edgewood Road property.
Meanwhile, other residents around the Newell Bridge took issue with the design that the city selected for the structure, arguing that wider structure would bring more cars and, hence, more traffic into their neighborhood. While the Palo Alto City Council ultimately approved the project in July 2020, the prolonged debate over the design of the new bridge further delayed construction.
Burt, who represents Palo Alto on the creek authority's board of directors, said that these various negotiations, coupled with rising construction costs and the need to obtain environmental permits form various regional agencies, contributed to delays in getting the Reach 2 projects going.
"Even on the embankments and all the channels in between Chaucer and Newell, we've had very difficult negotiations with some of the property owners there," he said. "The creek JPA has had to go back and do additional studies to see how they might minimize the impacts on those property owners on the Palo Alto side, and they've been able to come up with some redesigns that reduce the impacts but not eliminate them."
As things stand, Palo Alto is preparing to start doing preliminary construction work on the Newell Road Bridge later this year, with the goal of completing the project in 2024. If plans move forward as is, work on Pope-Chaucer would begin in 2025, according to the creek authority.
Concurrently, the creek authority remains in negotiations with Stanford about upstream improvements, including a possible detention basin that, when combined with the downstream work, would provide protection from a "100-year flood," an extreme event that has a 1 in 100 chance of happening in any given year. One alternative that the creek authority is currently analyzing is the creation of a detention basin at a former plant nursery site on Stanford property.
The creek authority is also reevaluating its design for the channel widening in the "Reach 2" area. Bruce told the board at the creek authority's November meeting that officials are looking at whether the channel should be widened on both sides or just on one side, which would minimize the impact to property owners.
"That evaluation is delaying the entire process a little bit, but we think it's a thoughtful way of approaching this design conundrum and making sure we have both the best engineering solution and the best solution for project neighbors," Bruce said at the Nov. 17 meeting.
The creek authority's design modifications aren't the only factors that may yet delay work on the upstream segments. Regulatory agencies may, for example, require further analysis of the creek channel to consider recent erosion and other changes that have occurred over the winter, Bruce said.
Funding is also an ongoing source of concern. Though Palo Alto recently received $2 million in state funding for the Newell Bridge project, Burt warned that the price tag for the creek-control work has been steadily rising over recent months and that there will likely be a funding gap. That, he said, is a challenge that is affecting all major infrastructure projects throughout the region.
In November, creek authority staff pegged the cost of all the Reach 2 projects at about $53 million, which includes $10.6 million and $9.8 million for replacement of the two bridges, $20.4 million for channel widening and $12.3 million for work on top of the banks. At that time, the agency identified about $34.5 million in available funding, much of it coming from Valley Water, Caltrans and CAP 205, a program administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Creek authority staff is preparing to provide updated cost estimates to the board in February, Bruce said. Despite the various uncertainties and delays to date, Bruce said she is confident that the projects will be moving ahead soon. While unforeseen setbacks are always possible because in many respects "nature is in control," she said in an interview, the plan is to have all the construction on the Reach 2 segment done by 2026.
"There is such a need to complete these projects," Bruce said. "There is such a motivation to complete these projects and I'm confident that the resources will be made available through a combination of state, federal and local funding. The trick has been putting that puzzle together in a way that works for everyone."
Timeline of flood control work since 1998
February 1998 - A massive storm sends San Francisquito Creek over its banks, causing an estimated $40 million in damage to about 1,700 properties in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto and flooding U.S. Highway 101 and surrounding streets.
1999 - Responding to the 1998 flood, officials from Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Santa Clara and San Mateo counties sign an agreement to work together on issues of mutual interest pertaining to the San Francisquito Creek. The San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority (JPA) is born.
2000 – 2006 The San Francisquito Creek JPA works with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to come up with a plan for a comprehensive flood-control project. Despite years of analysis, the plan doesn't move ahead.
2006 – The federal government cancels the Army Corps study, diverts $7 million in funding to the Department of Homeland Security's anti-terrorism efforts.
2012 – The San Francisquito Creek overflows its bank, causing flooding on Palo Alto streets.
2013 – Water from a storm damages a levee in East Palo Alto, threatening a residential neighborhood. Cities increasingly focus on a more limited flood-control project that does not rely on significant federal contributions.
2016 – The creek authority kicks off work on its first major flood-control project, which is centered on the downstream area between the bay and U.S. Highway 101. The project includes building levees, widening the channel and establishing a marsh plane to absorb water on Palo Alto's golf course in the Baylands.
2018 – The creek authority completes the downstream project in December, bolstering protection for flood-prone neighborhoods in East Palo Alto and paving the way for other projects in upstream areas to commence.
2019 – The San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority approves the environmental impact report for work on the "Reach 2" section, which includes replacement of the Newell and Pope-Chaucer bridges and widening the channel along the creek. The project is intended to protect the areas around the creek from a "70-year flood."
2020 – Responding to concerns from neighborhood residents, Palo Alto officials approve a revised design for the new Newell Bridge, reducing it from a four- to a two-lane structure.
August 2022 – A California appellate court judge tosses out a lawsuit from Menlo Park resident Peter Joshua, paving the way for the creek authority to move ahead with plans to replace the Pope-Chaucer Bridge.
December 2022 – The creek authority and its members prepare for construction of the "Reach 2" projects. Palo Alto, which is spearheading the Newell Road Bridge replacement, expects to launch construction this year and complete it in 2024. After that, the creek authority will start channel-widening work and replacement of the Pope-Chaucer Bridge, a project that it hopes to complete by 2026.