Preventing another flood has been a long, frustrating process — Part 2 on the 1998 Flood

Marilee Anderson of Palo Alto took this photo outside her house during the 1998 flood.


Daily Post Staff Writer

Two decades after a flood forced 500 residents to evacuate their homes in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park, causing tens of millions of dollars in damage, Santa Clara Valley water board member Gary Kremen has an idea: “Everyone involved should get tattoos: ‘20 years unfixed.’” founder Kremen chairs the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, which was formed more than a year after the Feb. 3, 1998, flood. The creek authority brought together representatives from the cities of Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park, along with the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the San Mateo County Flood Control District.

The new agency was tasked with addressing flooding and environmental issues related to the creek, which winds through all three cities along with Portola Valley and Woodside on its way to the San Francisco Bay.

But 20 years after the flood, none of the life- and property-protecting projects that the creek authority set out to do — before the next big flood hits — have been completed. A bridge blamed for much of the flooding, the Pope-Chaucer Street Bridge, won’t be replaced until the end of 2022.

Executive Director Len Materman is the first to admit that his agency’s projects have dragged out for too long.

“It’s completely understandable, especially if you were a victim of the flood 20 years ago, to say, you know, ‘What gives? Why does it take this long?’” Materman told the Post. “I would hope that the people that attend our community meetings or our board meetings get a picture of two things: one is why it takes a long time, and two is that we’re working as quickly as possible given the challenges of pulling this off.”

Previous chief faulted

Materman joined the creek authority on July 24, 2008, four months after the resignation of Cynthia D’Agosta, who was panned as ineffective by some flood abatement activists.

Materman has been received over the last decade as a more able leader, and the holdup on getting projects completed has been blamed on the often-clashing priorities of local, state and federal environmental regulatory agencies.

“Len Materman is doing a spectacular job herding cats,” said Crescent Park attorney John Hanna, who in 1999 sued the cities of Palo Alto and Menlo Park on behalf of 27 families to modernize the bridges at Pope-Chaucer Street and Middlefield Road.

TIRE-HIGH WATER — Water was as high as the top of a car’s wheel well during the flood. Photo submitted by Terri McKinsey.

On Jan. 8, 2004, Palo Alto and Menlo Park agreed to pay $3.5 million to settle the lawsuit over the flood, even though the residents hadn’t been seeking money — they just wanted to see the bridges replaced. The lawsuit had said that the bridges had acted as dams by backing up water that spilled over onto streets and into homes. But in settling the case, the cities did not agree to fix either of the bridges and both have remained unfixed.

‘It takes a long time’

“If you’ve got one government agency to deal with, it takes a long time. If you’ve got half a dozen of them, it takes forever,” Hanna said. “Meanwhile, the city is at risk so long as that (Pope-Chaucer Street) bridge is there.”

The creek authority has raised $95 million for its projects along the creek and San Francisco Bay shoreline. Some $30 million of that came from the state. But it’s a delicate dance to negotiate which city, and which county agency, funds what.

“The governance is complicated, the funding is complicated, the design is complicated,” said former Palo Alto mayor Pat Burt, who served on the creek authority’s board of directors. “It’s amazing how complicated the permitting process is.”

Permits can take years to obtain. The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board didn’t certify the creek authority’s Bay to Highway 101 project for more than two years.

Opposition to flood walls

The creek authority has also contended with environmental and neighborhood groups that oppose flood walls for their ecological and aesthetic impacts. Burt recalled the “huge community outcry” in Menlo Park a few years ago. San Francisquito is, after all, one of the few natural creeks in the region — residents who live near it don’t want to see it walled with concrete.

And some insist that the flood walls aren’t necessary. But Kremen said alternatives are usually far more expensive.

“People’s lives and property are more important than aesthetics to me, but that’s just me,” he said.

The Bay to Highway 101 project, which is under construction now, includes widening the creek into the Palo Alto Golf Course, opening up the levee between the creek and the marsh to let in freshwater, and building a horizontal levee on the creek and the marsh. That project should be done in the next year.

The Upstream of Highway 101 project, including the replacement of the Pope-Chaucer Street Bridge and the widening of the creek in a few locations, should start construction by 2020.

A “100-year flood” has a 1% chance of occurring in any given year. The 1998 flood was considered a 70-year event. Property owners who are protected from a 100-year flood can be exempted from needing to buy federal flood insurance, which can run more than $1,000 a year.

Flood protection

Part of the creek authority’s mission is to help residents to qualify to get out of the flood insurance program by showing federal regulators that they’re protected from a 100-year flood, but Materman said the agency might shoot for protecting residents from a 70-year flood if that turns out to be more realistically achieved.

“It’s better to go for a project that is meaningful than go for, like, the home run but never get it,” Materman said. And a 70-year project will protect from most of the impact of a 100-year flood, he added.

The creek authority is now working on analyzing the environmental impacts of its Upstream of Highway 101 project, which is already hitting roadblocks set by regulatory demands from the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Other permitting agencies include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which consults with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fishery Service. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife also has to sign off on creek authority projects.

Another agency

The Bay Conservation and Development Commission also has a say in the creek authority’s Strategy to Advance Flood protection, Ecosystems and Recreation (SAFER) Bay project, which extends along 11 miles of shoreline from the Palo Alto-Mountain View border to the Menlo Park-Redwood City border. It’s the largest multi-jurisdictional sea-level-rise project in the state, Materman said, and it will protect against tidal flooding and storm surges while accounting for up to 9 feet of sea level rise.

“The good thing is with sea level rise, we’ve got some time before that problem gets acute,” Burt said. But, he added, “the risk goes up each decade.”

Part 1 of this series.

A timeline of what’s happened since the flood.