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City prepares for winter storm season

Joint Powers Authority, Public Works join in partnership to upgrade infrastructure in case of flooding
Art+by+Christie+Hong
Art by Christie Hong

In anticipation of a heavy winter storm season and in collaboration with the Public Works Department and the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, the city of Palo Alto has begun an infrastructure upgrade equipment cleanup project.

The Climate Prediction Center projects severe rainfall from El Niño will cause winter floods in low-lying areas surrounding Palo Alto, and city officials are concerned that this flooding, combined with vegetation along the San Francisquito Creek could lead to debris build-up in the event of a storm.

To minimize storm damage, Vice-Mayor Greer Stone said the JPA conducts a yearly survey of the San Francisquito Creek and clears potential hazards from the area. JPA Senior Project Manager Tess Byler said the JPA already surveyed the creek for this coming storm season.

“Every year, we do an annual maintenance walk from the upper watershed to West Bayshore highway,” Byler said. “We had the walk in September because we were already anticipating the risk, and wanted to be able to make sure we were clearing debris out of the creek.”
Senior Engineer Michel Jeremias of the Public Works Department said infrastructure work remains a top priority for the city, and the Public Works Department completed repairs for cracked, rusted and rotted pipes around the city on Nov. 28 of last year.

“The pipes rehabilitated with the storm drainage system replacement and rehabilitation project were rehabilitated based on their integrity,” Jeremias said. “Increasing pipe sizes (as a means of upgrading them) is not always feasible for many reasons.”

The Public Works department hired Golden Bay Construction, Inc. to continue with Capital Improvement Project upgrades for storm drain stations and systems by East Meadow Circle and East Meadow Drive, with a planned completion date of the end of June 2024.

Jeremias also said Palo Alto is installing technology to monitor the creek in preparation for the coming storm season.

“We’ve installed poles where the camera will be placed, and we are in the process of installing the fiber, power and equipment needed to gather the image of the water level in San Francisquito Creek,” Jeremias said.

To address rising water levels, the Horizontal Levee Project, set to start construction in 2024, includes a method for transferring treated wastewater into habitats near the Bay to compensate for the water lost through other flood channels.

Paly AP Environmental Science teacher Nicole Loomis said the project will help support ecosystems in the area.

“Some of the river water goes into the marsh, which is down in the Baylands,” Loomis said. “It provides a good habitat for lots of birds. They will be diverting more water into that area as opposed to just discharging it to the Bay.”

Byler said the California Department of Transportation, the owner of the land by West Bayshore, will be ready if problems arise with debris build-up around West Bayshore, an area outside of the city’s jurisdiction.

“They’ve committed to have somebody monitoring the situation and taking emergency actions if required,” Byler said. “However, they can’t act unless there’s an imminent threat to human health or the environment.”

City officials also said Palo Alto offers additional resources for residents such as flood insurance premium discounts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Stone said additional benefits will also be available.

“They are assisting constituents with filing those FEMA applications, helping residents through the bureaucratic and complicated process of filing them,” Stone said.

The city offers sandbag distribution at the Rinconada tennis courts, Mitchell Park and the Palo Alto Airport terminal.

The city also hosted a storm preparedness workshop on Nov. 15, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Palo Alto Art Center for residents seeking information before the storm season begins.

Though the city can make preparations, Loomis said ultimately, the future impact of natural disasters will only increase due to the impacts of climate change.

“The last time we had a really strong El Niño was in 1997,” Loomis said. “It led to flooding in the San Francisquito Creek over by the Stanford Shopping Center. Climate change is predicted to increase the frequency of El Niños and La Niñas. Since the ocean is warmer because of climate change, the storms are stronger, faster and do more damage.”

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