Peninsula, South Bay agencies have limited window to approve extra funding for flood control project

Peninsula and South Bay agencies are scrambling to approve funding for a long-needed flood control project for San Francisquito Creek, which includes removing century-old sediment that causes the creek to flood.

The agencies hope to prevent a repeat of the 1998 San Francisquito Creek flood, which damaged about 17,000 properties and shut down U.S. Highway 101 in Palo Alto.

But the project’s $41.3 million price tag is $2.9 million higher than expected, and the cities and agencies involved need to move quickly to ensure the expenditures are approved before a mid-June deadline that, if not met, could set the project back months.

The San Francisquito Creek starts in the Santa Cruz Mountains and empties into the San Francisco Bay after flowing through Portola Valley, Woodside, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and East Palo Alto.

The creek is a major artery for stormwater flowing from the mountains to the Bay, but during king tide events, the Bay’s water level can rise enough that the creek’s water has nowhere to go, resulting in flooding.

That’s what happened in February 1998, when the creek overflowed and inundated surrounding terrain. Thousands of homes were flooded, as were the general aviation airport and municipal golf course in Palo Alto.

The flooding also left all southbound lanes of U.S. Highway 101 submerged at the University Avenue exit in Palo Alto, resulting in a three-day closure. Major flooding associated with the creek also occurred in December 2012.

San Francisquito Creek defines the boundary between San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. And in some places, the creek separates Palo Alto from East Palo Alto or Menlo Park.

Recognizing the need for multiple jurisdictions to collaborate on flood prevention efforts, the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority was created in 1999 and comprises the cities of East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Palo Alto, along with the San Mateo County Flood Control District and the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

Over the last 100 years, sediment build-up has narrowed the creek, making it more prone to flooding, said Len Materman, executive director of the Joint Powers Authority.

The project involves removing sediment, restoring the creek’s ability to discharge more water to the Bay without overflowing.

The project will also create 15 acres of marshy wetlands, which can help prevent floods by giving excess stormwater somewhere to go. Levees and floodwalls will also be installed.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District is managing the contract to build the levees and flood walls, and opened bidding for the project April 28. The bids came in higher than expected, Materman explained, with the lowest bidder requiring $2.9 million more than the agencies had anticipated.

Therefore, the three cities in the Joint Powers Agency must provide about $1 million each to make up for the shortfall. The funding must also be approved rapidly because if the water district fails to approve a bid within 45 days of the April 28 bid opening, it’s legally required to restart the bidding process.

Each town’s city council must separately vote to approve their contributions, Materman said, and city council meetings tend to be spaced so far apart that the expected approvals might come very close to the mid-June deadline.

But because the joint powers agency’s leadership includes representatives from each member city or agency, and all three towns’ city managers agree the project is necessary, Materman said he’s confident the extra funding will be approved.

“Fortunately, at the CEO level of all the agencies, we have all agreed to a final framework,” Materman said. “And the Joint Powers Authority board includes a member of the governing body for each jurisdiction.”

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