The Zone 7 Water Agency Board of Directors unanimously authorized spending $1.7 million for emergency repairs to an eroding slope threatening Foothill Road houses after hearing from emotional residents at its meeting Wednesday evening.
"We're going to take care of it," said board vice-president John Greci, calling the turnout "the most emotional response from the community" in his time on the board. "Every one of you spoke from your hearts, and I won't forget it."
The board approved resolutions making Zone 7 a local sponsor for available federal funding for repairs and authorizing spending $1.7 million for temporary emergency repairs to the slope fronting the Belshe and Raun properties in the 7800 block of Foothill Road in Pleasanton.
But while impacted homeowners are thankful for the board's action, they expressed worry about the rain reappearing and potentially worsening the condition of their properties.
"We've got six days of rain forecast," Eddie Belshe said Wednesday night. "I don't know if I'll have a home."
The board took up the matter at the request of the Belshe and Raun families, next-door neighbors who contacted Zone 7 last month about the erosion impacting their creekside backyards.
The families have lost much of their yards amid heavy rains over the last several weeks. A gradual change in the configuration of the Arroyo de la Laguna -- which the homeowners contend is a result of development upstream -- has created an s-turn that is propelling water toward their properties instead of going by them.
The creek's force against the slope fronting the Belshe and Raun properties has caused ground to erode away, taking with it vegetation that was planted to protect the slope and turning it into a cliff.
Alarmed by how quickly their backyards were eroding, the homeowners contacted Zone 7 in late February to request assistance.
They were told that it has been the agency's practice, consistent with those of other flood protection agencies in California, to not do work on privately owned land. The creek within that area is owned by the residents themselves.
However, Zone 7 holds an easement along the arroyo and across nine Foothill Road parcels, including the Raun and Belshe properties, which gives them the right to "construct, maintain, operate, inspect, and repair flood control facilities and appurtenances." To date, the agency has never undertaken any projects in that area.
Recognizing a quick response was necessary, Zone 7 staff filed an emergency permit with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Feb. 28, doing so under the assumption that either its agency or the city of Pleasanton would step up as the homeowners' local sponsor for federal assistance. Zone 7 also brought in consultants to do surveying and design work needed to obtain the permit.
Zone 7 manager of integrated water resources Carol Mahoney on Wednesday night explained the history and current state of the Arroyo de la Laguna in this area known as Verona Reach.
She said neighbors have done work over the years to reinforce their banks, but the arroyo downstream of Bernal Bridge has minimal protection. Regulatory agencies have already expressed that an additional larger solution could be required for the Verona Reach -- defined as the area between the Castlewood Drive and Verona Road bridges -- to try to straighten out the creek that would likely cost well over $10 million.
Mahoney also said Zone 7 had previously applied for grants to take on flooding and erosion abatement projects in the Verona Reach, but regulatory agencies rejected those applications.
Staff presented the board with three options Wednesday.
The board could take no formal action. Another option was to establish a local emergency grant program for Verona Reach that "could focus on construction improvements and improvement of the bank stability."
The third option was to make the agency a local sponsor for federal funding for repairs available through the Emergency Watershed Protection Program, which offers immediate financial assistance when life or private property could by threatened by flooding and erosion.
Mahoney told the board the program requires a local agency sponsor to request assistance on the landowner's behalf. The program can provide up to 75% of construction costs, but the local sponsor or landowner must cover all other costs, including ongoing maintenance. Staff said some of these costs could be reimbursed, but there is no guarantee.
With Zone 7 and the city of Pleasanton viewed as the only options for local sponsorship, city engineer Steve Kirkpatrick went to Wednesday's meeting and read aloud parts of a letter from city manager Nelson Fialho that urged the water agency to take it on.
"While I understand it may be Zone 7's position that the Arroyo de la Laguna flows across private property in this location, all storm water run-off that is collected and channelized by the 37 miles of Zone 7 flood control channels is directed toward and flows across this private property," Fialho wrote. "Without the Arroyo de la Laguna there would be no release point for Zone 7's collected and channelized flood water from the entire 425-square mile Tri-Valley area."
He continued, "Zone 7 staff has already initiated, and has spent considerable time and resources on, the steps necessary to be a local sponsor for the EWP program and secure the necessary regional general permit 5 from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I urge Zone 7 to complete this process."
The board heard from 17 more advocates of the local sponsor proposal during public comment at the board meeting in Livermore.
Many of the speakers were owners of the nine properties that Zone 7 has easements for. Several expressed frustration about Zone 7's lack of maintenance in the arroyo and said they understood it to be the agency's responsibility, based on their easements and past communications.
"This should have been taken care of long ago," said Ted Smith, who lives on the other side of the Raun's. "We have an emergency we need to get rectified and taken care of."
Several homeowners were emotional as they told the board how they had purchased their dream home on Foothill Road years ago, never anticipating something like this would happen.
Ginger Belshe told the board she and her husband had put their home up for sale two days before their property experienced significant erosion. They had decided to downsize and put the money toward their children's college fund.
Now, she said, her family can't sleep and they keep emergency items at the front door in case they're told they have to leave.
"My biggest fear is it may be too late for us," she said. "I hope it's not, because that's all we have."
All speakers Wednesday urged the board to approve local sponsorship.
The board members heard their request.
"If I were in your spot, I'd be saying the same things you're saying," board president Dick Quigley said after public comment. "It's near and dear to our hearts, trust me."
With the board's approval, Zone 7 staff will continue to work with its consultants and the Army Corps on getting an emergency permit for temporary repairs.
Zone 7 hopes to have the permit within one to two weeks, general manager Jill Duerig said Wednesday.
The temporary fix would likely consist of dumping large rocks, known as riprap, at the bottom of the slope to protect it against onrushing water. Paul Frank, an engineer with the firm working on the repair design, said doing so will also require building an access road for heavy equipment, removing material blocking the channel and possibly installing a retaining wall to protect the upper slope.
"All in all, we envision the process to be at its ultimate end within two to four months," Frank said. "But it's possible an emergency action would need to be removed under dry season conditions and replaced with a more permanent fix."
Should that be the case, the project could cost as much as $5 million, according to Zone 7.
On Thursday, Dave Raun said he and his neighbors were pleased with the board's decision.
"We were very pleased with their response and willingness to sponsor and take ownership of it," he said. "It just left the one open thing -- how do we get through these rainstorms?"
Late Thursday, it appeared his question could have an answer. Zone 7 and the city of Pleasanton will be bringing in workers Friday morning to place large sandbags against the base of the slope, according to Kirkpatrick.
"We're trying to get it so the water does not hit the bank with the coming storms," he said. "From what rain we expect, it should make a big difference."