Cupid's Row canal being dredgedBy Justin Nyberg
It was not the weeds and muck that were clogging the flood-prone Cupid's Row canal in San Bruno. It was wads upon wads of red tape.
Stalled for months by a lengthy permitting process that required the approvals of a half-dozen state and local agencies, work has finally begun on the environmentally sensitive Cupid's Row canal, thanks to a hard-nosed neighborhood activist and the stubborn persistence of local officials pushing the heavy gears of bureaucracy.
"I thought this day was probably not going to get here," said San Bruno resident Robert Riechel, who has led the fight to clear the canal since November 2002, when it overflowed and flooded dozens of his neighbors' homes and yards in eastern San Bruno.
The Cupid's Row canal is a 15-foot-wide ditch that drains storm water from San Bruno to the bay and is home to the endangered California garter snake and red-legged frog. Any work in the area requires special permits from the several state and federal agencies.
During the four-year construction of the BART extension tunnel nearby, weeds and mud were allowed to amass unabated in the canal, and strict environmental regulations prevented the city and county from doing anything about it.
After the floods of last November, angry residents demanded that the canal be cleared before the rains returned this winter, but the county said it couldn't do anything without going through a lengthy permit process and coordinating with several state and local agencies.
Letters began flying between the San Bruno and San Mateo County Public Works Department, San Mateo County Flood Control District, Regional Water Control Board, San Francisco International Airport, the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers, the state Department of Fish and Game, the Fish and Wildlife Service and Caltrans -- all of whom had partial jurisdiction over the vacant lot east of San Bruno.
"To dig there you have to jump through loops," Riechel said.
Riechel hounded public officials at every level of the process, bombarding them with requests for progress reports. He even copied U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein and Rep. Tom Lantos on letters when it appeared they might pressure the Fish and Wildlife Service or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to speed up the yearlong permitting process.
The urgency was driven by the approach of the rainy season and the possibility of another winter of floods. The entire dredging process was slated to take 10 weeks, meaning work had to start no later than mid-August.
On Aug. 12, County Public Works Director Neil Cullen wrote a desperate letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service pleading for the necessary permits, but the department responded it was backlogged with other important requests. Hope was fading for Riechel and his neighbors, who had all but resigned themselves to another winter of flooding.
Then, on Sept. 4, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued a biological report that allowed the six-week period of trapping and removal of snakes to begin.
The final paperwork was pushed through and, holding final permits from the Regional Water Control Board, the Corps of Engineers and Department of Fish and Wildlife, crews began the painstaking process of clearing weeds by hand and removing one load of mud at a time on Oct. 22.
Now, the question of whether the floods will return to eastern San Bruno this winter is up in the air. Crews say the work will continue well into November, but the Fish and Wildlife Service has indicated it will shut the project down as soon as the rains return, when the endangered snakes and frogs become active again.
Last year, the area first flooded on Nov. 8.
The work cannot be rushed. Almost a mile of silt that must be dredged, and every scoop of sludge must be inspected twice by a pair of licensed monitors to ensure no snakes or frogs were hidden in the mud.
Riechel is not gloating in his victory. He said he was "satisfied" the system worked and has nothing but praise for the city and county public works officials who joined him in the fight to get the project moving.
"I would hope that the system, in the future, for something similar, could maybe work a little more smoothly," Riechel said.
Copyright ©2003 Peninsula Examiner. Published 10/23/2003.