Grand jury’s warning not heeded

In the Great Quake of 1906, the San Andreas Reservoir ripped in half: one half moved nine feet north, while the other half stayed put.

It’s that kind of catastrophic dam failure — one that could lead to flash floods through what are now heavily populated parts of the Peninsula — that worried a San Mateo civil grand jury last year. In a critical report, the jury recommended San Mateo County and each individual city to work with dam owners to devise plans about what to do in such an emergency.

But four weeks after the grand jury’s recommended deadline of March 31 to devise these plans, none except the Crystal Spring Dam, one of the county’s 19 dams, have an emergency action plan.

At risk in the case of a dam failure in San Mateo County are 15 health care centers, 27 schools, 109 city- or county-owned critical facilities and 76 bridges or interchanges.

Though the civil grand jury does not have any enforcement capability, the report asked cities, dam owners, an emergency council and county emergency agencies to work together to create the emergency plans, including clear instructions about who to contact in the case of a dam failure.

The plans have been delayed,said Bill O’Callahan, supervisor with the county’s emergency services, mostly because of a lack of funding. The grand jury recommended that funding come from the county’s Emergency Services Council, a committee with funding and representation from the county and each of its cities.

But council funding is impossible, according to Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson, the council’s chairwoman at the time. She said that because the funding was not included in its budget for that year, the county would have to find funding through grants.

O’Callahan said his office applied for state and federal grants but did not receive them. Instead, the office took some of its own funding and has devoted one person to working on the plans part time — all the office can afford right now, he said.

The grand jury report had stated that none of the county’s 19 dams had an emergency action plan but this wasn’t the case, said Tony Winnaker, director of communications for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

The county’s biggest reservoirs, the Crystal Springs Reservoirs, which the commission owns and operates, has had such a plan for years, Winnaker said. However, he said, it had never shared that plan with the county — a crucial oversight that Winnaker said has since been remedied.

kworth@examiner.com

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