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Los Altos rejects flood basin

Original post made on Jan 26, 2011

In an unexpected move, on Monday night Los Altos School board members rejected plans to construct a flood basin at Blach Middle School, halting a $40 million project that would give flood protection to 2,220 homes in Mountain View and Los Altos.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, January 26, 2011, 12:24 PM

Comments (22)

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Posted by Alex M.
a resident of Willowgate
on Jan 26, 2011 at 2:18 pm

In the decades of drought California has suffered, when was the last time we had flooding around here? I haven't lived in the bay area all my life, but the news that some parts of the peninsula are in danger of flooding is surprising to me.


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Posted by reader
a resident of Waverly Park
on Jan 26, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Anyone remember the Palo Alto flood of 1998?

Web Link

The Great Flood of '98: El Nino's Fury

In the early hours of February 3rd, 1998, heavy El Nino rains prompted an event that Crescent Park and Green Gables residents had worried about for years --- San Francisquito Creek overflowed. Although flooding at the Chaucer Street Bridge was the biggest problem, the creek also jumped its banks at three other points in the city --- near the bridges at Byron, Seneca, and Woodland/University Avenue.

A wave of water went rushing downhill at record speeds of 7,100 cubic feet per second into the neighborhood of Crescent Park, past University Ave, Hamilton, Channing, over Embarcadero, running southeasterly and pooling into the lowlands near Greer Park. On its journey it flooded nearly 1,700 homes, turning much of southeasterly Palo Alto into a swirling, muddy nightmare.

Because the creek rose the last four feet in just 15 minutes, sleeping residents had little indication that a major flood was on its way. Oregon Avenue resident Jim Bourdon heard an unfamiliar sound in the early hours of Tuesday morning. "It sounded like the hose was on --- I guess it was water coming into the house," he told the Palo Alto Weekly. The Bourdons then heard their neighbor banging on the door and knew that it was time to leave. They had no time to move any of their furniture.

Other tales told to the Weekly at the time...

Evan Economos: "At 3:30a.m., I woke up to go to the bathroom. As I put my feet over the side of the bed, I suddenly realized that I was ankle deep in cold water. I immediately shook my wife and woke her up. Very quickly we woke the children and told them to get dressed. I got dressed as quick as I could."

83 year old Miriam Patchen: "At 6 a.m. I heard someone knocking heavily on my door, yelling, `Hurry, hurry.' `I got out of bed, and I was instantly up to my knees in water.''

Patchen's neighbor, Dennis McKinsey used his own boat to help rescue Patchen and other stranded neighbors who found themselves in a virtual lake of flood water.

One man was rescued around 1:30 a.m. by boat from his overturned truck that he had plowed into four feet of water on the Oregon Expressway underpass beneath Alma Street. The man managed to swim to safety, and was rescued from the top of the pump station.

The lack of any significant warning from the city would cause finger-pointing, accusations, and angry speeches in the weeks and months following the flood.

Neighborhoods also took a second hit that added to the original surge of creek water. Since the storm drains flow to creeks, there was no place for water to go. This left water, and in some cases raw sewage, to pool onto streets, turning them into virtual lakes and rivers.

Although there were no deaths or serious injuries related to the flood, the losses in terms of property and valued belongings were devastating. Floors buckled, walls became saturated, water flooded basements and first floors, and many homes had major structural and content damage. Estimates to many residences ran between $80,000 and $100,000 and some did not have insurance.

Overall the flood caused an estimated $28 million in damages. Few would soon forget the Great Flood of '98.
-Matt Bowling


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Posted by Paul
a resident of Waverly Park
on Jan 26, 2011 at 2:56 pm

The Water District has raised a ridiculous amount of money under the Clean and Safe Creeks act that it has no way to spend responsibly. So they concoct these bogus projects instead of returning the money to the taxpayers who provided it in the first place. Appropriate spending might be to properly maintain and enhance Stevens and Permanente creeks to avoid blockages which might lead to flooding. The tearing up of parks and fields to build flood basins which will only be used if the creeks are poorly maintained is an afront to the intelligence of the members of our community. Lets call a spade a spade. This one is a turkey.

Congratulations to the Los Altos School Board for seeing through this scam. Mountain View Council, it's your turn next to put an end to this hogwash once and for all.


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Posted by oldabelincoln
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Jan 26, 2011 at 3:17 pm

Thank you "Paul" of Waverly Park for pointing out that floods are caused *ONLY* by poorly maintained creeks.


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Posted by Steve
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Jan 26, 2011 at 3:28 pm

The logic behind this absurd concept is buried at the bottom of the article: 'to protect 1600 properties from a 1% chance of flood, so the owners won't have to buy flood insurance'.
7 acres times 10 feet...not much storage for $40,000,000.00 Less than an inch spread over 5 square miles? It would be useless long before it would be of benefit. Pure pork!


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Posted by Daniel DeBolt
Mountain View Voice Staff Writer
on Jan 26, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Daniel DeBolt is a registered user.

Steve, you didn't read the whole story. The $40 million includes flood basins at McKelvey Park, the Cuesta Annex and Rancho San Antonio, not to mention flood walls on portions of the creek.


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Posted by BD
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jan 26, 2011 at 4:34 pm

The project also protects parts of El Camino and other public roads from flooding. 1600 property owners will save on insurance, but many more people would benefit from the protection this project offers: drivers, business owners, and employees of affected properties. I think the school board is being short sighted by blocking this.


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Posted by No flood protections for its own schools?
a resident of St. Francis Acres
on Jan 26, 2011 at 4:53 pm

@BD, that's beyond short sighted , this map shows the potential flood areas:

Web Link

The flood area includes Eagle Park, the Mountain View Libary and it seems two schools in the Los Altos School District: Springer Elementary and Blach Junior High.


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Posted by Alison Stern
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Jan 26, 2011 at 11:13 pm

I am only a resident of Mountain View for a few years now but I grew up my whole life across from a flood control district.

In case any of you think that you really won't have to buy flood insurance because of a flood basin let me assure you that when we bought the house off my parents where I grew up that the first thing the mortgage company wanted was flood insurance because of the flood basin.

They are making this claim that this will stop you from having to get flood insurance but it might mean that you actually need to get more.

It boggles me that no one seems to see that a basin full of water might mean that the flood if one of the flood basin walls fails will be right through your front door. Like it was for a neighbor down the street from my childhood home when the flood basin wall failed and let all the water out on to our little street and down a side street.

It is not a good idea to have a flood basin surrounded by houses. I wanted to get to the meetings and speak up as a representative of some one who has been in a place where several houses will be if this plan goes through. The only difference is the flood basin I grew up next two only had houses on one side to begin with and then added in one small corner at about 20 years in on another side. They want to have these ones surrounded by houses and schools.

Think if it does flood the basin. What will happen?

Alison Stern
Former resident of the Pacoima Flood Control basins
and now resident of Mountain View


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Posted by Cuesta Neighbor
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jan 26, 2011 at 11:44 pm

Alison, the flood will start right at Blach School and run down hill through Mountain View to the bay. The constriction in the diversion channel is right there at Blach. So in a 100 year flood, there will be 500 cubic feet per second spilling over at Blach School (the channel can handle 1500 cubic feet per second, but there will be 2000 cubic feet per second in a 100 year flood).

Having flood detention basins will not increase the risk of flooding or cause anyone to be required to get flood insurance. It might make it possible for some people in the 100 yr FEMA flood zone to not be required to have flood insurance. However, the water district encourages everyone to have flood insurance (it's just less expensive if you are not in a 100 yr FEMA flood zone).

This seems like an irrational and irresponsible decision on the part of the School Board. They want to leave the space open for future development or sale? Maybe the kids won't need athletic fields in the future?

If you don't think we could have major flooding here, take a look at this article about a recent USGS/FEMA conference studying California flooding
Web Link

"The threat of a cataclysmic California storm has been dormant for the past 150 years. Geological Survey director Marcia K. McNutt told the New York Times that a 300-mile stretch of the Central Valley was inundated from 1861-62. The floods were so bad that the state capital had to be moved to San Francisco, and Governor Leland Stanford had to take a rowboat to his own inauguration, the report notes. Even larger storms happened in past centuries, over the dates 212, 440, 603, 1029, 1418, and 1605, according to geological evidence."

"Such a superstorm is hypothetical but not improbable, climate researchers warn. "We think this event happens once every 100 or 200 years or so, which puts it in the same category as our big San Andreas earthquakes," Geological Survey scientist Lucy Jones said in a press release."

"The risk is gathering momentum now, scientists say, due to rising temperatures in the atmosphere, which has generally made weather patterns more volatile."

The date of the 1862 flood caught my attention because it was also a large flood in Mountain View history and an example of the sort of 100 yr flood that the Santa Clara Valley Water District is anticipating with the Permanente Creek Flood Protection Project.

The USGS report mentioned above(Web Link) says: "A core policy issue raised is whether to pay now to mitigate, or pay a lot more later for recovery." The School Board has decided to take the risk and hope the big storm does not happen soon -- let someone else solve the problem or someone else pay for the cleanup.


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Posted by LASD Parent
a resident of another community
on Jan 27, 2011 at 7:52 am

MV Voice, quite a few questions worth asking the Los Altos School Board:

- Would flood insurance cover our kids education and teachers salaries if Blach (and potentially Springer) is closed due such a flood?

- Did the School Board provide even ONE plausible scenario where the athletic fields at Blach would be needed for development? Enrollment growth is far from exponential under any projection. It also tends to be at the opposite end of the District (along the El Camino and San Antonio corridors).

- Since the rejection may kill the whole flood protection project, isn't there a risk for the School District to be sued by flooded homeowners and insurance companies? How much could this cost us, LASD taxpayers?


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Posted by Bob
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Jan 27, 2011 at 7:58 am

Thank you Los Altos School District. Mountain View should follow.


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Posted by Read the Planning Report
a resident of another community
on Jan 27, 2011 at 8:51 am

If you read the actual report from the Water District, there are plenty of other viable options that don't include the Blach Detention Pond.

In fact, Option V, which doesn't include a detention pond at Blach or McKelvey, but does require a dam at the Lehigh Cement factory would actually cost $4M less and protect 2870 homes, which is 400 more than the plan they were looking at with Blach. That's right, according to their map, the option they were considering with Blach would protect 2470 parcels, not 1600 or 2200.

But apparently there is a problem with a frog. I guess frogs are more important than people these days.

See Appendix B of the Planning Study Report.


@The person with the Palo Alto Flood narrative: The area in question is right next to Palo Alto, yet didn't flood in 1998. That fact supports the opinions of some that the project is unnecessary.


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Posted by LASD Parent
a resident of another community
on Jan 27, 2011 at 9:15 am

@Read the Project Report

Frog aside, that alternative is in another city: Cupertino which is not in the flood area at all.

To make it work, the Cupertino would need to be much better Samaritans than the Blach neighborhood and the Los Altos School District.


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Posted by James Hoosac
a resident of another community
on Jan 27, 2011 at 2:42 pm

I support LASD in rejecting this project. To stop a flood you need to go to the source. It is crazy to dig up populated neighborhood to solve this imaginary problem.

Over the years the Water District constantly invented imaginary problems, using FUD tactics, to ask for more tax dollars and grab more power. This is one of them.

For those who need to buy flood insurance. Sorry, nature has been there before your house was. On the other hand, I think it is much, much cheaper to subsidize the floor insurance payments for these 2500 houses than building and maintaining this project. How about just give each of them a check and be done with it.



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Posted by Seer
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Jan 27, 2011 at 4:17 pm

I never cease to be amazed at the illogic and emotion that is used in place of thoughtful arguments in this forum.
- Just because you can't remember a flood doesn't mean it can't happen
- Justifying doing nothing because a 100-year-flood only occurs once in a 100 years is like not saving for your retirement because it only happens once in your life.
- Exactly how is it cheaper to subsidize rebuilding 2500 houses at (let's take an average of 1Million dollars), for a total of 2.5 billion dollars than it is to build $40 million of public works? Insurance isn't free: insurance always collects more in fees over the window of risk than the amount it pays out, or the companies would go out of business.
- Insurance companies aren't stupid. If the basins mitigate risk, then the cost of insurance will go down. Easy test: get confirmed bids on insurance before and after the basins.

I don't like the idea of mountain view being pockmarked by pits but I think rational analysis can tell us if this is a good idea or not.


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Posted by James Hoosac
a resident of another community
on Jan 27, 2011 at 5:02 pm

To Seer, please read my post carefully. I said we subsidize the insurance, not the cost of rebuild. What is the annual flood insurance premium per house? From what I know it is under $1000/year. Given the revenue collected there is enough to subsidize a proportion of the insurance payments.

And why in the world should us tax payers spend so much for the benefit of these 2200 houses anyway? How come no one pay my homeowner insurance? On what ground do we give these people such entitlement? They chose to buy and live in these houses, well aware of the flood problem. They accept the risk. The house prices probably have reflected that risk.

It is not fair that they turn around and force everyone else to fix their problem at a huge cost.

Let's assume the problem is fixed. The house values increase. When they sell the house, does the public get anything in return? Of course not. The owners just pocket all the extra money due to the elimination of flood risks.

I know that this is a slippery slope. One can argue from both sides. But given the cost, and the hassle involved for others, such as Blach, this project is not a good cause.

The Water District just cooked up a problem and incites communities to fight with each other over this imaginary issue. They pocket all the money, salary, pension, consulting fees for their friends, etc., while we are wasting our time.

What's next? Prevent aliens coming up from deep underground?


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Posted by SP Phil
a resident of Shoreline West
on Jan 27, 2011 at 8:14 pm

MV Voice, if I'm reading the map correctly, El Camino Hospital is in the flood-prone area. Right?

Also, to the question of why this area floods--and the idea of doing something at the source: Mountain View is more prone to flooding because Los Altos is now covered with home and concrete patios and streets that reduce the area for water to be absorbed. To enable construction, creeks were channeled into concrete.

If most of Los Altos homes were removed, we would have no problem with flooding in Mountain View.

Of course I'm not proposing this. What I do propose is that the solution to the flooding problem be comprehensive and sensible, rather than presuming that the solution to the problem is simple and someone else's responsibility.


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Posted by James Hoosac
a resident of another community
on Jan 27, 2011 at 8:42 pm

The source is where the red-legged frogs live - the mountains, not Los Altos.


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Posted by CostBenefit?
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Jan 28, 2011 at 12:18 am

What I don't understand is who looked at this and said it was a good investment from a cost benefit perspective. This article states a $40million cost for the project, to guard against 'potential' damages of $48 million (according to the official project literature). That same literature states a project cost of $27M. By the time this project is complete, the cost is very likely to exceed the potential benefit of a 100yr flood. Which means this is protecting against multiple 100yr floods? I agree, time to get back to the basics and ensure the creeks are maintained. And as far as the PA flood? The San Francisquito creek floods because the bridges over it do not have enough flow capacity, and the cities that can afford to fix it (Palo Alto and Menlo Park), are dissuaded from doing so because bridges in EPA would become the bottleneck. So, instead, they debate about how to get someone else to pay for the EPA fixes needed without addressing the most obvious fixes first (Chaucer St) when they have the funds to do so. Disfunction in water districts is par for the course.


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Posted by Blach Neighbor
a resident of another community
on Jan 29, 2011 at 5:20 pm

To evaluate cost effectiveness, look at Planning Study Report Appendix E, last page column Z. Total 50 yr cost: $83.8M. Of course this includes the second phase non-CSC portion of 18.4M to protect additional parcels between El Camino and Foothill which of course is unfunded (yet). So most Los Altos residents get little to no benefit and Mountain View gets full protection at a cost of $61.2M to prevent $48M damages. Deal?

Oh, and the biggest current concern for flooding at Blach is the "flow restrictor" which the SCVWD decided to place right next to Blach Field, when they spent who knows how much money replacing the box culvert and underground pipe in 1986. This was remedial work to help prevent future incidents like the 1983 flooding at Blach. Of course the rest of the Diversion Channel emptying into Stevens creek can take considerably more flow than the 1400 cfs restriction, so if it was simply removed there would be much less danger of flooding at Blach and at very little cost.

And BTW, according to SCVWD documents the 1983 flood was caused by:

"The flooding was related to operations conducted at the Kaiser Cement Plant located in the
upper Permanente Watershed. Immediately after the flood, Kaiser staff reported that the outlet
to a large water "retention structure" had become plugged. On March 2, the plug burst, which
resulted in the release of a large slug of water to Permanente Creek. County Communications
reported that a large (about 20-foot deep) "wall" of water was observed traveling down
Permanente Creek from Kaiser Cement."

So the flooding was not even primarily from natural causes and the repairs for it spent a lot of money, but put a flow restrictor back in place so Blach would flood just as easy. Seems we need more protection from the Cement Plant and questionable projects than rain.


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Posted by Political Insider
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jan 29, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Pretty easy for the school board to take the easy way out by pandering to the NIMBYS in the LA neighborhood. They should ask the PA people how they felt about their homes being flooded. Maybe this will result in more money being spent in Mtn View. Not a lot of political leaders in any of these groups.


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