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Log jam blocks San Francisquito Creek

Original post made on Jan 9, 2017

A log jam of branches and tree trunks clogged the West Bayshore overpass at San Francisquito Creek on Sunday afternoon and evening, causing crews to spend hours removing the massive amount of debris.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Monday, January 9, 2017, 12:00 AM

Comments (31)

20 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 9, 2017 at 7:26 am

How did the massive amount of debris accumulate? The creek was reported to have been cleaned up this summer. This doesn't seem like a few branches breaking loose. This seems like something else. We need Santa Clara Valley Water District to investigate how this happened and how we avoid it in the future. I believe this is their reposibility and they should report back to us with information. No doubt the fire drill will be costly and it could have been a disaster for residents.

41 people like this
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 9, 2017 at 7:55 am

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

This is a chance to reflect on what was not in the news - there was minimal street flooding in Palo Alto. I share this to remind our town that in February a mail in ballot will show up to property owners to continue a fee that has provided for our local stormwater infrastructure, as well as embarking on new approaches that divert more rain to shallow groundwater.

Palo Alto opted to separate our stormwater system into a separate fund like a utility. The fee is parcel-based, and will sunset in 2017. The fee for the next 15 years will build more projects to further control street flooding, maintain the vast separate stormwater network (remember there are two sets of sewerage - rainwater and sewer), and start making streets and neighborhoods more permeable. A Blue Ribbon committee kept the fee increase to a mere 62 cents per month.

In the last round of projects , a large pump station was constructed to move the water up into San Franscisquito Creek. This type of pumping will be needed as sea level rises, and we protect our community from flooding. While the parcel fees do not improve the Creeks, they are a coordinated component to make sure we stay dry. We also saw the start of new drainage systems such as one would find in Southgate where the water percolates.

If you want to see this campaign, endorse, and view extensive FAQs, then take a look at this website. The campaign is mounted by fellow community members who mysteriously maintain an interest in making sure infrastructure works in Palo Alto. Broadly we should feel proud that our streets drained, and our agencies all responded in a coordinated manner.

Web Link

5 people like this
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2017 at 7:57 am

@Crescent Park Mom,
I agree. I have heard of landscape companies dumping debris in creeks. Just think, someday soon it will be impossible to get away with something like that because analyzing DNA, in this case, of plants, will become so easy....

12 people like this
Posted by Train Neighbor
a resident of Ventura
on Jan 9, 2017 at 8:24 am

Train Neighbor is a registered user.

I suspect Mother Nature is the source of the debris as trees were toppled by wind and brought down the creek.

They measured gusts over 70 MPH in the Bay Area and over 100 in the Sierras!

27 people like this
Posted by David
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2017 at 8:26 am

No matter how much you 'clean out the creek' debris will still float down stream. Over cleaning out the creek has as much environmental consequences as having debris clog up at the Hwy 101 bridge. During the creek flows in the '98 el nino storms, I watched full sided trees float down Los Trancos creek near Alpine and Arastradero Rd that were over 20-ft long. Much of the 'debris' is habitat for wildlife, insects and fish/invertebrates. Remember that the watershed for the San Francisquito Creek starts way up the foothills, not just the city limits.

4 people like this
Posted by David
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2017 at 8:30 am

Also, most of that debris is floating, meaning that it collected at the top of the debris screen. That means there is plenty of space under the debris for water to still pass (looks worse that it appears). I love the picture of the debris and the christmas tree on top (why someone tossed their tree into the creek and not recycle?).

10 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2017 at 8:33 am

Because this storm happened over a weekend when people were generally at home or local, people were out and about monitoring the creeks in a way that wouldn't have happened on a weekday. My Facebook feed was full of photos that people had taken of the local creeks and particularly the debris floating past. I think that in future, the powers that be, the City, the County, the Water Authority, should have a phone line advertised so that these local monitors can post pictures and videos to the authorities so that they can be made aware of potential problems before they become critical. The static cameras on the bridges can't be as effective as eye witness accounts and pictures taken by locals.

Even on a weekday, I think many of us keep our eyes open and this could be something that the authorities take advantage of.

9 people like this
Posted by Kaz
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 9, 2017 at 11:07 am

In 1997, our PA neighborhood was just at the edge of flooded areas. We had a very dramatic view of changes in the ground water table level: a contractor had dug a very deep basement hole, completely dry when he was digging it. We weren't surprised that it had some water in it after El Niño rains, but it just didn't dry up. Eventually we figured out that the water table had risen so much that the "basement" was under 3+ feet of water. Another neighbor, who had dug out under two lots to create a 5-car underground garage, had his industrial sump pump running 24/7 all through the summer. He was probably pumping the ground water level back down to drought level just to keep his basement dry.

It's great to read that in spite of historic high flows on San Francisquito creek, there hasn't been much damage. I hope this doesn't make people complacent or lead them to forget how quickly a flood can happen. Hooray that the work already done has been successful; let's keep funding flood defenses until East Palo Alto is also protected from its current high level of flood risk.

12 people like this
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 9, 2017 at 11:51 am

I'm grateful to those who worked so hard yesterday and last night clearing the debris. With the creek having risen to over ten feet last night, I can just imagine the flooding if the debris removal hadn't occurred.

Oh, and please note I'm not the Hmmm commenting upthread.

3 people like this
Posted by Rosewood
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 9, 2017 at 12:09 pm

Sue Dremann -- good piece, good photos. Thanks for working late and in foul weather. But your reporting is a little frustrating because it misses one of the basics of journalism -- don't raise questions that you don't answer. I.e., where did this debris come from? That's the first thing I thought of, just from the headline. PA and EPA knew the storm was coming. The cities have been talking all year about keeping the creek clear. So what happened??

5 people like this
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 9, 2017 at 12:20 pm

Rosewood - how would Sue Drenman know? Do you really think that there were authorities available to her on a Subday night during the storm? And what do you mean, from where did the debris come? It's a natural creek that's many miles long.

7 people like this
Posted by revdreileen
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 9, 2017 at 12:27 pm

revdreileen is a registered user.

Many of us who live near the Newell Bridge were out and about this morning, watching the water flow under the bridge, and expressing gratitude that our homes weren't flooded. Thank you to all who worked so hard to keep our homes safe.

Like this comment
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 9, 2017 at 12:32 pm

"Eventually we figured out that the water table had risen so much that the "basement" was under 3+ feet of water. Another neighbor, who had dug out under two lots to create a 5-car underground garage, had his industrial sump pump running 24/7 all through the summer. He was probably pumping the ground water level back down to drought level just to keep his basement dry. "

But but but - all the pumping out to create basements is lowering our water table dramatically! We need a regulation to prevent pumping ground water! It's waste! OMG!

Won't someone please think of the children!

Rather than clear the creek, we should keep the debris in there!


3 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 9, 2017 at 12:35 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

So according to the NWS, Palo Alto got 1.14 inches of rain in the last 72 hours (3-4: up in the mountains). And we almost flooded? I'm thankful we didn't, but incredulous that it was even a possibility with the relatively light rain. It shows how little progress has been made since 1998.

Web Link

Web Link

5 people like this
Posted by MenloJim
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 9, 2017 at 1:38 pm

As part of the three year widening the channel under Highesy 101, Caltrans installed a debris catcher to trap normal amount of materials floating down the creek where they would be easy to remove. This prevented debris from becoming trapped under Highway 101 where the channels narrows and they would be extremely difficult to remove.

7 people like this
Posted by Lots of "Experts"
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 9, 2017 at 2:36 pm

I'm astounded by how many people simply don't know how the outdoors works.
There is a real disconnect between some people and mother nature.

Like this comment
Posted by jerry99
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 9, 2017 at 3:09 pm

Why didn't they remove the logs, branches, etc. during the summer? Should have been obvious this was going to happen with a metal net halfway down the creek.

Caltrans crews said the debris was being caught by metal catchers at the bridge that are designed to prevent the material from going under the freeway. The debris would otherwise catch on newly installed pillars that are part of the current flood-control construction project. The debris would be impossible to remove if it was caught under the freeway. (SO the damned flood control measure for the creek requires metal catchers that don't allow creek debris to flow under the freeway?
So branches, limbs, etc will collect as a dam every large rain? Is there anyone competent in civil service? Building in a guaranteed failure is unacceptable.
[Portion removed.]

39 people like this
Posted by Reader
a resident of another community
on Jan 9, 2017 at 4:22 pm

Look people, trees and branches fall all year long, but especially during storms. Cleaning the creeks during the summer doesn't prevent additional debris from accumulating after the cleanup. And there's no ironclad way of predicting which trees or branches will fall.

Have you ever weeded a garden or cleaned out leaves from a gutter? You can remove every weed, but in a few days, new ones will emerge. Maybe you cleaned out your gutters a couple of months ago, but I bet they don't look the same today. It's not like washing a dish and putting it into a cabinet. The world is a living, growing, dying place and Mother Nature always bats last.

The multi-year drought has made more trees susceptible to disease and death. Some of these fall down. Some will do so on a highway, others will do so relatively harmlessly in a forest. As I type this, somewhere in the SF Bay Area, a tree branch is falling.

A few commenters here really need some basic awareness of how the world works. There's a deplorable disconnect with reality as evidenced by several above.

1 person likes this
Posted by AJ
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2017 at 4:58 pm

The city was quite responsive and we all got lucky that the foothills didn't get as much as rain as forecast. I had called the city to warn about a blocked storm drain and it was fixed within a few hours. Sandbags were refreshed often.

Overall, kudos to everybody (not just the city, we all play a part) for keeping the city safe during the storm.

As an earlier commenter mentioned, the debris build-up is likely to re-occur and there does not seem to be a permanent solution suggested, which is worrisome. This means that every time there is a strong storm, we need to keep our fingers crossed again :(

Like this comment
Posted by K Snow
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 9, 2017 at 5:04 pm

We watched the backhoe clear that grate either Friday or Saturday via Palo Alto's creek cam, so the volume of debris that washed downstream from just this event between Saturday and Sunday's gate clearing is truly remarkable.

We watched the backhoe crew remove debris numerous times last winter as well. Yes, we're in the flood plane. They work regularly in advance of stormy weather, bringing in truck after truck as needed to haul away debris. Just as leaves, branches and trees come down in our neighborhood during storms, the creek gets its share, and it all flows downstream. The grate in place at West Bayshore seems practical for now, with ongoing construction downstream and a narrow, steep-sided creek upstream. With the completion of the 101 end of the project, it will be interesting to see how the creek responds and what becomes of the grate.

9 people like this
Posted by Ralph Britton
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 9, 2017 at 9:43 pm

I second Bob Wenzlau's comment. We have to invest in critical infrastructure and storm water management is critical. Failure to maintain and upgrade these systems will have drastic consequences and be hugely more costly than timely maintenance and upgrades.

4 people like this
Posted by Grateful
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 9, 2017 at 10:43 pm

Thank you Kamal Fallaha for taking action on the blockage!!
This could have been a very different story without your help.

4 people like this
Posted by KM Nolan
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 10, 2017 at 10:43 am

There are several things to consider regarding the debris that accumulated at the downstream end of San Francisquito Creek on Sunday.

First, the peak streamflow that occurred on Sunday was the highest flow recorded at the USGS streamgage since December 2014. This means there was time for debris to accumulate in the streambed and on stream banks of San Francisquito Creek. Perhaps more could have been done, but I was happy to see that an effort was made to manually remove debris from the channel during periods of low flow. I’ve got to think that given the length of time available for debris to accumulate and the sheer amount of debris involved, removing all debris in the streambed and on stream banks would have been very difficult. And, during low flow, workers could not take into account trees and branches toppled as a result of erosion this winter or broken loose by storms this winter. The situation at West Bayshore seems to have been a bit unusual because metal catchers are installed (temporarily, I think) at the overpass to protect ongoing construction of the Highway 101 bridge downstream. It sounds like those catchers worked as designed. I do hope, however, that it wasn’t simply an impromptu observation by Mr. Fallaha that alerted Caltrans to the fact that debris was backing up on their metal catchers and that Caltrans was operating under the assumption that debris would accumulate and that they were keeping abreast of the situation. That said, I appreciate the work that was done to recognize and mitigate the problem.

Second, I think it should be pointed out that the peak streamflow on Sunday at the USGS gage was around 2000 cubic feet per second. To put that in perspective, the historic peak stream flow at that site was 7,200 cubic feet per second in 1998. In the 77-year history of the stream gage, flow has exceeded flow on Sunday many times. By referencing historic flows that occurred only on all the January 8ths on record (rather than referencing the entire period of record) the Palo Alto online article might cause readers to think flow on Sunday was more exceptional than it really was. This relates to the debris situation because it is reasonable to assume that flow could easily exceed what occurred on Sunday, which would cause more debris to be released and carried downstream.I hope Caltrans keeps this in mind.

But perhaps more importantly, I think it is important to put Sunday’s flow in the broader historic perspective because it means we must develop and maintain a basin-wide infrastructure that can handle flows that are much larger than what occurred on Sunday. Toward that end, I think Mr. Wenzlau’s comments bear consideration. As communities continue to build out and add higher density housing it is likely that more impervious surface will be added to the drainage basin. The last thing we want to do is to make it easier for more water to get into our streams faster. This would make it even more likely that flow in San Francisquito Creek will reach or exceed 7,200 cubic feet second (as occurred in 1998). For this reason, I think plans to mitigate storm runoff referenced by Mr. Wenzlau warrant consideration.

2 people like this
Posted by jerry99
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 10, 2017 at 12:26 pm

Ralph Britton,
Endorsing Bob Wenzlau's comment requesting voting in ANOTHER PARCEL TAX is wrong. They have worked on San Francisquito creek for 10 years now and this article shows what a fiasco we now have. We have to have residents go out to look at the creek several time/day during significant rains because the metal structure will form a debris grate forms a dam which traps water at that point. Maybe the only thing we can do is look at the creek itself and call Palo Alto or Caltrans when the creek is blocked. The ten years of work on the flood mitigation appears to have not improved the flooding potential.
Sounds like another government approach: if it does not work, just throw more money at it and sooner or later it may work. No more.

4 people like this
Posted by Jenny
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 10, 2017 at 12:41 pm

@ Ralph Britton, why do we need another tax to take care of our infrastructure? It should be a priority of our general budget. We need to cut from non-essential budget items to properly pay for it. Bob Wenzlau's suggestion that another tax is needed is just one more excuse to increase taxes by passing new ones.

5 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 10, 2017 at 12:46 pm

@ Jerry99: The parcel tax (past and pending) is for improving the city storm drain system - not for the creek. Never was for the creek, was not spent on the creek and will not be spent on the creek.

Like this comment
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 10, 2017 at 2:37 pm

Why improve what happens underground if we want ossify what's built on top of it?

If you're going to embrace the Residentialist mindset of putting Palo Alto in amber, be consistent and let's go all the way:

1. We are on a flood plain
2. It's been flooding since before we put the firetrap Eichlers here.
3. That makes it more historical than the housing.
4. Ergo, let it flood.


Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 10, 2017 at 7:46 pm

Searched YouTube for "San Francisquito Creek" and found a 2-hour video of raft's-eye view paddling 7 miles from about 280 to 101.

Looks like wilderness.

Debris control would be much easier if we just cemented the whole thing in. Let's hope such a proposal does not come to a vote. Too many people want to turn this place into Los Angeles.

Like this comment
Posted by Neighbough
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 12, 2017 at 11:37 pm

Grateful for those put in the hardwork.
Just wonder if caltrain can put in more debris catching and monitoring mechanism along the creeks starting upstream so we are less vulnerable. (maybe 1 every so many miles). It seems every time has been due to debris.

3 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 13, 2017 at 5:34 am

@Neighbough, you mean San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, not Caltrain.
Web Link
Or we could ask Gary Kremen what he's been doing for 2 years.

1 person likes this
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 13, 2017 at 1:06 pm

From where I am sitting the amount of debris is totally predictable. If you start at the top of the creek there is downed trees and vegetation throughout and it is loose and subject to movement. Maybe they leave all of the debris in the creek to provide hiding places for critters. The time to remove debris is in the summer. Adobe Creek is cleaned periodically so that water can flow through with no obstructions until it goes under 101 - then it is in the overgrown stages again and trash flows backward into the creek because no one is cleaning it at the bottom. All of these groups need to make better decisions about a major flood control issue and solve it in the summer and clean out the trash at that time - that includes the shopping carts and human leavings that get dumped into the creek.

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