Ross Valley flood scare brings calls for action

Ross Valley flood scare brings calls for action By: Richard Halstead (
POSTED: Friday, Jan. 13, 2017 – 3:14 p.m. UPDATED: TODAY
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San Anselmo officers evacuate downtown San Anselmo after the Corte Madera Creek reached 12 feet Tuesday night. The creek begins flooding at around 13 feet. (Robert Tong — Marin Independent Journal) The debate over building flood detention basins in the Ross Valley is heating up once again after downtown San Anselmo came within a whisker of flooding this week.
At 6:45 p.m. Tuesday – 15 minutes before the San Anselmo Town Council was scheduled to begin its weekly meeting – the town’s flood horn sounded, warning residents to immediately evacuate the downtown area because flooding was believed to be imminent.
“When it actually floods down San Anselmo Avenue, it is extremely dangerous,” said San Anselmo Town Manager Debra Stutsman. “Before you know it, there is a river going down San Anselmo Avenue. In 1982, cars were floating down the avenue breaking windows.”
Stutsman said the town couldn’t have gotten much closer to flooding than it did Tuesday.
“We’ve always known we flood when the creek reaches around 13 feet,” she said, “and at 13.65 feet we were at the brink.”
Coincidently, one of the things the Town Council was slated to do at its Tuesday meeting was make a recommendation for alternative use of a $8.72 million grant the town received from the state to help build an emergency flood detention basin in Memorial Park. Residents concerned that the character of the park would be spoiled passed an initiative in November 2015 that prohibits the use of Memorial Park as a flood detention basin.
“There is a segment of our Marin population who has a strong not-in-my-backyard viewpoint. It’s really frustrating, and a day like yesterday really underscores it,” said San Anselmo Councilman Tom McInerney on Wednesday after rising water from San Anselmo Creek came close to his home.
McInerney serves on the board of Flood Control District Zone 9. The communities of the Ross Valley – Fairfax, San Anselmo, Ross and Larkspur – joined with the county of Marin to form the flood district after flooding in 2005 damaged about 1,200 homes and 200 businesses in the Corte Madera Creek watershed, resulting in $90 million in property damage.
Fee approved In 2007 district voters approved a fee to fund flood reduction measures. A $100 million plan was created to address the Ross Valley flooding problem; the plan hinged on the creation of a number of flood detention ponds. But so far every time a potential site has been identified for a basin neighbors have objected.
“It’s not just yesterday or this weekend; after every major storm our downtown looks like a war zone,” McInerney said. “No wonder we struggle as a business community. There is no question it suppresses property values. Who wants to move to a town or area where there is constant risk of damage?”
San Anselmo Chamber of Commerce President Connie Rodgers said, “Our chamber endorsed the detention basins. We need serious flood mitigation today, not tomorrow.”
McInerney’s fellow Flood Zone 9 board members – David Weinsoff of Fairfax and Chris Martin of Ross – both agree that the recent storms should serve as a call to action for the community.
“What we’ve discovered over the last couple of days is that these atmospheric rivers are posing phenomenal danger to us,” Weinsoff said. “We’ve dodged a couple of instances now over the last couple of weeks, but it is unfortunately only a matter of time before we have a repeat of 2005.
“The community has to band together now and recognize that the siting of the detention basins at the top of the watershed is absolutely essential,” he said.
Martin said, “I’m one who believes the basins can be built safely and work effectively when they’re needed. The alternative of having stormwater creating peril in the streets is unacceptable.”
Skepticism remains Last week’s storm didn’t convince everyone, however. Matt Brown, whose opposition to the Memorial Park detention basin plan featured prominently in his election to the San Anselmo Town Council in November 2015, remains skeptical.
“I do believe that detention basins will work,” Brown said. “But how much are we willing to pay to put that plan into place? This is a multimillion-dollar project, one that I believe the people have to decide if it’s worth implementing.”
Brown said he and many other San Anselmo residents wisely chose not to buy property in the floodplain. He said spending millions of dollars to address flooding in the Ross Valley would be “tantamount to a bailout of somebody’s real estate decision.”
“What is lacking in America right now is a sense of personal responsibility,” Brown said.
But Lise Stampfli Torme, who helped found the Flood Mitigation League of Ross Valley after her home was flooded in 1982 and 2005, points out that in addition to downtown stores, San Anselmo’s Town Hall, its library and public safety buildings are all in the flood zone.
“Why should we all pay to clear brush up on the hill, when my house isn’t going to burn down? Why do people pay for police protection (when) not everybody needs it all the time?” Stampfli said. “We can be selfish about this or really address it as a community problem.”
Torme, who lives on Morningside Drive, an area that floods easily, said she often can’t sleep during heavy rains because she’s fearful the sump pump that keeps her house dry will break down. She said when her power went out on Sunday she discovered the generator she had purchased in advance didn’t work and rushed out to buy another one to keep the pump running. Later, her family had a scare when carbon dioxide from the generator found its way into their home.
“When the sun came out Wednesday, I went on a crying jag,” Torme said. “It’s PTSD.”
Detention basin San Anselmo Councilman Ford Greene, who like Brown opposed the Memorial Park detention plan proposal, said he hasn’t altered his opinion on that issue.
“That is a dinky watershed. I don’t think it delivers enough water for a detention there to make any difference,” Greene said.
Greene believes building a detention basin at the former Sunnyside Nursery growing grounds in Fairfax could reduce flood risk.
He said, however, “In terms of downtown San Anselmo, removing what is known as ‘building bridge No. 2’ is more important than any detention basin. That’s where the blockage is.”
“The reason it is called building bridge (at 636 San Anselmo Ave., where L’Appart Resto is located) is that it is a building and a bridge,” Greene said, “and the problem with it is it is too low. It blocks the free flow of the creek downstream.”
Greene said it is safe to assume in this era of climate change that more deluges like the one that hit last week are headed Marin’s way. He said urgent action is needed.
David N Swaim Owner/Realtor -107078 Town of San Anselmo Planning Commissioner 415 710 5504 phone/text 609 San Anselmo Ave San Anselmo CA 94960

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