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Funding award a watershed moment in San Francisquito Creek...

Jason Green, Mercury News
9/24/2011

http://www.mercurynews.com/peninsula/ci_18968760

Funding award a watershed moment in San Francisquito Creek flood-control plan

A funding drought for a plan to prevent San Francisquito Creek from overtopping its banks could be over.

The California Department of Water Resources on Wednesday recommended awarding $8 million to the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority for construction of the first in a series of projects to stave off a 100-year flood.

Scheduled to be built in two phases, the San Francisco Bay to Highway 101 project will ramp up flood protection for East Palo Alto and Palo Alto by widening the mouth of the creek, relocating levees and excavating the channel, said Len Materman, the authority's executive director.

"We're pretty excited about this," Materman said of the $8 million award. "It represents a huge infusion of cash to start construction."

The funding, however, isn't locked in quite yet. The Department of Water Resources will take public comment on its award recommendations over the next two weeks. Of the 41 agencies that applied for funding in April, 23 didn't make the cut, and Materman expects them to ask the state agency for a change of heart.

Looking to retain its award, the authority's board of directors approved a letter Thursday thanking the state agency and underscoring the importance of the Bay-101 project.

"This vital funding will allow us to begin to solve the flooding risk since a storm damaged approximately 1,700 properties in our watershed 13 years ago. The project recommended for funding will protect residents living below sea level in homes with roof lines below an uncertified levee, and protect major local, state, and federal infrastructure," the letter states.

The award won't cover the full cost of the Bay-101 project, which could total $24 million, but it represents a major step forward for a flood-control plan that has historically struggled for funding, said Palo Alto Council Member Pat Burt, who sits on the authority's board of directors.

"It's probably the single-largest outside funding we've received," Burt said.

The authority also hopes to apply $10 million in Measure B funds toward the project, Burt said. The remaining gap could be plugged with matching funds or potentially through an assessment district, he added.

Formed shortly after the creek flooded in 1998, the authority changed course with the hiring of Materman in 2008, Burt said. Instead of focusing on an all-encompassing plan backed by congressional dollars, the authority has developed a series of flood-control projects and pursued alternate sources of funding from agencies such as the Department of Water Resources.

So far, the strategy appears to be working, Burt said. Palo Alto has secured a grant to replace the Newell Road bridge and Menlo Park is working on a similar effort with the Middlefield Road bridge. Both bridges are among four that will need to be replaced to increase the creek's capacity to handle a 100-year flood.

Meanwhile, Caltrans is steaming forward with a plan to add a second culvert where the creek passes under Highway 101.

"We've been able to cobble together some pieces that didn't seem possible ... when this change in strategy occurred," Burt said.

The Bay-101 project is the most important piece of the puzzle, Materman said. Without it, upstream improvements, such as the removal of bottlenecks, won't be effective. With the funding secured, construction could start sometime next year.

"We're getting much closer to turning shovels on a project that will make the area safer," said Materman, noting that the ultimate goal is to nullify the flood insurance requirement for 5,300 properties in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto.

Palo Alto resident Lorraine Brown welcomed news of the progress Friday. Her house was among those damaged when the creek spilled out of its banks in 1998. She recalled passing her young children through a window to a firefighter as a combination of creek and storm drain waters flooded her Walter Hays Drive residence.

"I will be the happiest person in the world," she said, "if my house never floods again."

Email Jason Green at jgreen@dailynewsgroup.com.

ON THE WEB

For more information about the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, visit www.sfcjpa.org.

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