San Jose held its first public hearing last week on the February flood disaster, and victims rightly laid into elected officials and city staff.
Residents condemned the city’s lack of preparation and notifications, and more than a few people talked about how they have lost everything they owned and fallen ill from the toxic floodwaters. Property damage has surpassed $100 million and more than 500 households remain displaced.
Mayor Sam Liccardo and City Council members made numerous apologies for the lack of foresight and response, and while much of the contrition rang hollow for people forced to flee their homes, there was at least some sense of ownership and responsibility. San Jose officials tied themselves to the whipping post and admitted that the city was derelict in its duty to protect residents, or provide sandbags, or at the very least send out timely emergency alerts.
But one public agency—beyond a single employee—was notably absent from Thursday’s proceedings.
The Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD), which is responsible for providing drinking water and flood control for 1.9 million people in the South Bay, coordinated with the city in the days and weeks leading up to the flood. And yet, when it came time to provide answers Thursday on how the flooding occurred, the district sent just one official to speak at the hearing: Rick Callender, the district’s government affairs director.
At the advice of district counsel Stan Yamamoto, who has a history of employing a bunker mentality to the release of information, Callender arrived alone and limited his comments to a brief statement and letter from John Varela, chair of the district’s Board of Directors.
In a hearing that lasted more than six hours, the district provided little to no valuable information for residents seeking answers, as Callender announced that the district planned to hold meetings in April to get to the bottom of what caused the flooding. Those meetings remain unscheduled.
Leaving the meetings up in the air for a time to be determined later this spring shows the same lack of urgency that got us into this mess, and it suggests the district is committed to working at the speed of bureaucracy.
It’s the kind of dallying that might explain why the district still hasn’t conducted an audit of contractor RMC Water and Environment—which was accused by district staff of fraudulent billing—despite the board approving a review 16 months ago.
It’s the kind of laissez-faire attitude that mirrors the actions of the district’s chief of flood control, Melanie Richardson, who remained on a ski retreat while San Jose residents were being rescued from their homes.
On Monday, Mayor Liccardo sent a letter to Chair Varela lamenting the district’s decision to not send anyone with real insight—“engineers, hydrologists or managers with relevant expertise”—to Thursday’s hearing.
“We need answers to many important questions to prevent this kind of damage from happening again,” Liccardo wrote, noting that city staff “identified inaccurate Water District data regarding channel capacity and the repeatedly flawed estimates of flooding risk as key obstacles to providing timely notice to residents.”
The mayor’s letter also said that the city has accepted “responsibility for fixing the shortcomings in our emergency preparation and warnings.”
So, why does the water district refuse to do the same?
Well, according to the water district, that’s because it’s blameless.
“SCVWD followed the procedures and protocols necessary for a substantial weather event such as this one,” Varela wrote in a response letter Monday afternoon. “We want to find factual, real, engineering and communication solutions to the issues faced by all. We believe that working together for the benefit of all residents is more important than short-term political theater.”
Varela included a brief timeline of communications between him and the mayor leading up to the public hearing, and he argued that the city received everything it needed from the district “hours in advance” of the special meeting.
The district chair added in his letter that the mayor declined a joint meeting invitation between the council and district board. It’s not clear how this would work, or when it would take place, but David Low, a spokesman for the mayor, told San Jose Inside that Varela’s account is a mischaracterization of the conversation.
“The mayor told me that he has always welcomed the joint meeting, which is why he asked in the letter to look for options to move up the April 28 hearing up to an earlier date,” Low wrote in an email Monday. “However, in the meantime, he was hoping that the Water District would be able send some of their professional staff to the City Council’s March 9 hearing so we could start addressing some of these critical issues that will help us prevent this from happening again.”
In his response letter Monday, Varela defended the district’s decision to send Callender as its lone representative at the special meeting.
“We are interested in facts, not blame, which only serves to dishonor those who have been harmed and displaced by the flood waters,” Varela said.
There is more than enough dishonor to go around in this catastrophe, but it certainly says something when one side insists it acted flawlessly in the face of historic flooding.
It appears the district doth protest too much.
See below for full letters from San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and Water District Chair John Varela.
Dear Chair Varela,
I was disappointed that, despite repeated requests from our City Manager and myself more than a week prior to the hearing, the Santa Clara Valley Water District declined to send any engineers, hydrologists or managers with relevant expertise to our March 9 City Council hearing on the recent Coyote Creek flooding. As we've previously discussed, City staff has had difficulty eliciting information from the Water District in recent days that would enable us to better anticipate flooding, so I was equally disappointed to learn that your attorneys’ concerns would compel your agency to decline to meaningfully participate in our public effort to identify and fix what went wrong to create the devastation of February's flood.
We need answers to many important questions to prevent this kind of damage from happening again. While your Government Affairs Director read a formal statement on behalf of the Water District, he could not offer substantive answers to any of the questions posed by the City Council regarding stream flow data, flood protection, stream channel maintenance, and other issues that fall under the subject matter expertise and jurisdiction of the Water District.
As I’ve said before, this event took place in my city, and I accept responsibility for fixing the shortcomings in our emergency preparation and warnings. To do so, we need the best information, and we need cooperation of the agency tasked with flood prevention and management. At our March 9 meeting, City staff, my colleagues and I publicly acknowledged the City’s failure to provide adequate and timely notice to San Jose residents and businesses about the potential for flooding. We also approved a number of immediate actions that will help us avoid these issues going forward [sic]
However, the absence of your staff prevented the Council from hearing their insights about how to rectify the communication breakdowns between the Water District and the City EOC regarding the timing and seriousness of flood threats. As you know, City staff have identified inaccurate Water District data regarding channel capacity and the repeatedly flawed estimates of flooding risk as key obstacles to providing timely notice to residents. Vastly improving interagency communication and flood monitoring protocols is an urgent priority.
I remain committed to working collaboratively with the Water District, the County, and our many other partners to fix these shortcomings as quickly as possible. To do this, we need all the facts about what happened before, during and after this event, as well as an open and honest discussion about the responsibilities of our respective public agencies when it comes to flood protection and mitigation.
Since the Water District did not send a representative equipped to answer our questions at the March 9 hearing, I have included a list of a few of the questions raised by our City Council and the public, and have attempted to list them more succinctly for your convenience (see attachment A). Given the urgency of our task, we would appreciate the Water District's response to these questions as soon as possible.
I hope that meetings between our respective staffs will enable forthright feedback about the findings and recommendations of the City’s after-action report so we can immediately formulate a plan for addressing those items that will require action from both the City and Water District. Given the urgency of these issues, I also propose that we move up the date of our joint City Council-Water District Board meeting to take place the week of March 27th or the week of April 3rd, at a mutually convenient time, and that we focus that meeting on eliciting factual information relevant to our actions in the weeks ahead.
Thank you for your prompt attention to both this request and to the continued invitations from our professional staff to engage in discussions on how we can better protect our residents from flooding in the future.
ATTACHMENT A: Questions for the Santa Clara Valley Water District
City's Warning and Emergency Protocols
- Does the Water District have any insights or opinions about the City's proposed improvements to its own warning systems and resident notification protocols? What additional improvements would the Water District suggest?
Water District's Flow Rate and Channel Capacity Data:
- How does the Water District explain the large gaps between the quantitative descriptions of creek channel capacity that the Water District provided City staff the week before the flood, and the rates at which flooding occurred in Rock Springs, at William Street, Watson Park, and the mobile home parks near Oakland Road?
- What is the degree of accuracy of the hydrologic model used by the Water District to predict the overflows from Anderson spillway, and why were the overflow estimates and timing of peaks changed so frequently in advance of and during President's Day weekend?
- What is the Water District doing to improve stream gauge accuracy? Is the Water District considering additional stream gauges, for instance, at Rock Springs?
- Data regarding stream flow rates in Coyote Creek, both during and immediately prior to the flooding, on the Water District website have been removed and altered since the flood on Tuesday, February 21st. Why?
- Did the Water District's descriptions of Coyote Creek channel capacity account for sediment and vegetation growth in those channels? If not, why not and how much of the aforementioned gaps (in predicted and actual channel capacity) can be explained by sediment and vegetation? What are the other factors that could have contributed to the gaps in predicted and actual channel capacity?
- Does the Water District monitor sediment accumulation and vegetation growth in the creeks for flood protection purposes? If not, is it the view of the Water District that these are not substantial factors in flood prevention or stream channel capacity? If so, what communication has the Water District had with the City or other Coyote-adjacent property owners about flood risk resulting from sediment accumulation and vegetation growth?
- The Water District completed a study as recently as October 5, 2016 on flood protection needs in Rock Springs, and described in great detail (p. 21) the sources of information behind its channel capacity estimate (then 7,000 cfs) in that part of the creek. A few weeks later, the channel flooded at that location at a flow rate at least 2,500 cfs lower. Why?
- For other segments of Coyote Creek that flooded in the recent storms, how recently were hydrologic studies performed to determine the creek channel capacity data provided by the Water District to the City of San Jose?
- A Water District Emergency and Security Manager, Dale Jacques, was recently quoted in the Mercury News stating that the City of San Jose should not have relied on Water District data regarding channel capacity and flow rates, but should "augment our information with their own analysis." What analysis, exactly, should every city perform? Why can't cities rely upon the Water District's projections and data? Should every city and town in Santa Clara County should [sic] hire its own hydrologists? If so, will the Water District - as the sole agency collecting tax revenue to provide flood prevention and expertise countywide - provide funding for those additional staff?
- The Water District suggests that they had field personnel monitoring conditions along the Coyote corridor prior to and during the event. Where were those staff positioned and what were they communicating to either the Water District's or the City's EOC?
- Are there technological improvements that can be implemented with the Water District's sensors at key locations (e.g., Edenvale, William Street) that will provide a clearer indication of flood risk?
- In light of City Attorney Rick Doyle's March 10,2017 memorandum, can the WaterDistrict cite any written authority—e.g., a statute, court opinion, or contractual agreement—for its contention that individual property owners bear responsibility for clearing vegetation and removing sediment for flood protection within the creek channels of our County?
- Given the fact that there are hundreds of property owners along Coyote and many other creeks in this County, does the Water District contend that each individual owner has responsibility for obtaining dredging and hauling equipment, and obtaining permits from the Water District and other agencies to perform the work? Beyond the post-flood statements of Water District spokesperson Rachael Gibson that "each property owner is responsible for clearing their own section" of the creek, what has the Water District done to proactively inform property owners Countywide of this purported responsibility? What has the Water District done to inform cities Countywide of this purported responsibility?
- The Water District has several pages on its website that describe its work on sediment and vegetation removal within creek channels for flood protection. Is there any public information on the Water District's website that informs property owners how they should obtain dredging equipment, permits, and other requirements to preform stream maintenance for flood prevention purposes?
- What does the Water District need from the City of San Jose and other property owners to perform flood-mitigating stream channel maintenance along the flood-prone portions of Coyote Creek?
- The Water District asked voters to approve Measure Bin 2012, listing among the projects within Priority E 1: "Vegetation Control and Sediment Removal for Flood Protection." According to the Water District, this parcel tax measure allocated $59.2 million (in 2015 dollars) to "support the District's ongoing vegetation control and sediment removal activities that reduce flood risk by maintaining design conveyance capacity of flood protection projects. These activities also provide access for maintenance personnel and equipment. The project includes: controlling in-stream vegetation growth, removing sediment at appropriate intervals, removing hazardous trees, and performing weed abatement and pruning to provide access and establish firebreaks." If the Water District is unwilling to take responsibility for comprehensive vegetation control and sediment removal, will the Water District make those funds available to individual property owners and cities throughout the County to do so?
District's Flood Control Projects and 2012 Measure B:
- The voters approved the Coyote Creek Flood Protection Project as part of the 2000 Measure B, allocating $32 million to the project. Since then, the district continually delayed implementation of the project, spending over $10 million on planning and design until placing the project "on hold" last year until FY 2019, "due to need for development of other planning projects that impact the Coyote Creek Project." What other projects took priority over Coyote Flood protection? Under what criteria were those projects deemed to be of higher priority? How was the public, including property owners and residents in the Coyote Creek floodplain, notified about this change? and why?
- At the March 9111, 2017 hearing at City Hall, Mr. Callender communicated that the Safe, Clean Water and Natural Flood Protection Plan funded by the 2012 Measure B parcel tax no longer exists. What was this plan replaced with?
- Priority C2 of the 2012 Measure B Safe, Clean Water and Natural Flood Protection Plan indicates that 5 out of 7 automated flood forecast and warning systems have been implemented along various creeks. Coyote Creek is not one of those. What is the status of such a system along Coyote Creek? How can the City participate in expediting its implementation? How does the Water District determine priority of these systems? Do these systems notify residents in multiple languages?
- Priority E2 of the 2012 Measure B calls on increased coordination with local municipalities on flood communication. According to the Water District's published records, in May 2016, the Water District continued engagement with Sunnyvale OES, Cupertino OES, Cupertino Citizen Corps/CERT, and the San Francisquito Creek JPA. Why was San Jose not included within the District's coordination efforts under this priority?
- The Rock Springs report, published in October 2016, indicates that flood protections for the neighborhood would likely involve constructing a floodwall or setback. Is the District considering options for a temporary floodwall between Needles Drive and Bevin Brook?
- Did the Water District deliver sandbags to known flooding locations, such as Rock Springs and Williams Street, as it bad in the flooding of 1997? If not, why not?
Anderson Dam and UpStream Flow Managemment
- What is the maximum rate of outlet flow from Coyote Reservoir?
- During the relevant days prior to and during the February floods, did the incoming flow to Anderson Reservoir from Coyote Reservoir- which had also overtopped in February exceed Anderson's outlet flow capacity? Why did the District not mention inflows from Coyote Reservoir in its press releases and reports about the outlet flow from Anderson Reservoir and efforts to lower the water levels in Anderson?
- What factors contributed to the Water District's decision to delay the release of water from Anderson Reservoir until January 9th? How did that decision affect the risk of flooding on February 21st?
- Could SCVWD have managed the Coyote-Anderson dam system more proactively (i.e. earlier release from the outlet pipe, earlier supplemental pumping over the spillway) to attenuate a large peak flow such as was experienced?
Here is a response letter from Water District Chair John Varela:
March 13, 2017
Santa Clara Valley Water District Statement in Response to San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo Letter
We read Mayor Liccardo’s letter today and share his interest in determining the factors that led to the devastating flooding that occurred during the Presidents' Day Weekend.
We would like to correct immediately some of the statements made in Mayor Liccardo’s letter:
- The Mayor knew well in advance that we would send a representative, but not our entire board or engineers to the special council meeting. (See March 3 and March 8 letters)
- We sent our Water District’s most senior government affairs and communications official, Rick Callender, to make a presentation at the government hearing--as well as to provide a series of answers to questions that the City desired information about.
- The information that the Mayor and City requested was presented hours in advance of the hearing so that the City staff would have the opportunity to review our answers for its public hearing. (See March 9 letter)
- We believe we used our time wisely by using our resources, board members and staff to work on answering the City’s questions in advance of the meeting as well as reviewing information to attempt to prevent future risk of flooding to San Jose residents. (See March 9 letter)
- On March 2, in a telephone call with the Mayor, I offered to have a joint meeting between the City Council and the District Board, but this offer was declined. Instead the Mayor invited us to be present in the audience at the City’s March 9 hearing. I followed up with the attached March 3 letter confirming that a staff representative would be present.
The Water District is working closely with the City to improve the situation. We are interested in facts, not blame, which only serves to dishonor those who have been harmed and displaced by the flood waters.
We all listened in sympathy to the Special City of San Jose City Council hearing, to the expression of sorrow, disappointment and anguish expressed by the residents of San Jose who were devastated by the flood waters. Their stories of losing homes, belongings, and mementos of great personal meaning to them and their families touched everyone's hearts. The impact of this flood on their lives, livelihoods, and their neighborhoods is immense.
The Santa Clara Valley Water District has pledged to work with the City, County and other emergency service providers to do everything in our power to review, and improve, what can be done in the future to reduce the risk of the type of flooding that destroyed so many homes and deeply impacted so many of our residents. We have been carrying out this pledge and we will continue to do so.
Some of the statements made by City officials at the City hearing (as well as Mayor Liccardo’s letter today) about what led to the flooding were made in good-faith, but without full knowledge or facts of how procedures, protocols, and data about water flow, creek maintenance, Anderson Dam, and other factors that led to their delay in notifying residents that these flood waters were going to impact the residents and neighborhoods.
SCVWD followed the procedures and protocols necessary for a substantial weather event such as this one. We want to find factual, real, engineering and communication solutions to the issues faced by all. We believe that working together for the benefit of all residents is more important than short-term political theater.
Again, and most importantly, we will continue to work cooperatively with San Jose to determine how to improve and better coordinate and communicate in the future as well as reduce flood risk for our residents and neighborhoods, as well as address the Mayor’s and the community’s questions, during our April community meetings which are currently being planned.
John L. Varela
Santa Clara Valley Water District
Correction: A previous version of this story noted that a joint meeting between the city and water district will take place April 28. That meeting is not one of the still unscheduled meetings the water district says it plans to hold with communities affected by the flood. San Jose Inside regrets the error.