As the Bay Area attempts to dry off

As the Bay Area attempts to dry off after a rain-soaked weekend, the question arises: how should our land use decisions plan for the likelihood of increased severe storm events? For example, when and to what extent should new development be permitted in a floodplain? How close to riverbanks and creeks should buildings be situated? And what happens — and who pays — when a development creates increased flood hazards for homes and businesses further downstream?

Upper Penitencia Creek in eastern San Jose is one of the few waterways in Santa Clara County that follows a mostly natural course, does not have concrete embankments, and has an almost continuous riparian forest along the stream corridor. The creek contains habitat for steelhead trout and western pond turtle as well as various other species of fish and other animals. Moreover, Upper Penitencia Creek is very flood-prone, recently experiencing 7 floods in a 20-year period. The Santa Clara Valley Water District is currently engaged in a flood control project in the Upper Penitencia Creek watershed to protect the over 5,000 homes, schools and businesses located in the floodplain, as well as to provide environmental benefits for fish and wildlife.

Notwithstanding these issues, the City of San Jose is currently considering approval of a development of up to 20 townhomes right next to Upper Penitencia Creek, on what is currently zoned agricultural land. The project is situated in a FEMA Zone A floodplain; the project proposes to guard against the danger of flooding by raising the level of the buildings, but this would simply mean that floodwaters would be deflected and sent downstream to flood other property there. Part of the development would be located within 100 feet of the riparian corridor, in violation of the city policy that states that situating buildings and impervious surfaces adjacent to a riparian corridor can result in loss of wildlife habitat, disturbance to wildlife from excessive noise and night lighting, loss of groundwater recharge, and increased erosion and sedimentation.

CGF and other environmental organizations are advocating for further analysis of the risks and impacts of this project both on Upper Penitencia Creek and on downstream residences and businesses. We will continue to press for responsible policy decisions regarding situating development in floodplains and close to rivers and creeks.

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