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Higher water use still a challenge for Palo Alto

Original post made on Apr 22, 2013

Palo Alto officials had more reasons than usual to smile this Earth Day, with the city recently switching to carbon-free electricity and dramatically cutting its greenhouse-gas emissions. But the annual celebration is also casting a spotlight on the one blight on the city's pristine environmental reputation -- water usage that remains among the highest in the region.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Monday, April 22, 2013, 1:36 PM

Comments (39)

Posted by Bummer, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 22, 2013 at 1:48 pm

Lots of "In it for me" people are now living in Palo Alto . This watter issues does not surprise me...the thought of sacrifice for the common community good seems foreign to many residents. Palo Alto has become very much, a mercenary community over the past 20 years or so, with some exceptions.

Posted by EPA Folk, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Apr 22, 2013 at 1:49 pm

The City of PA should get funding from Fed/State for encouraging water-efficient renovations to yards/landscapes, or make a requirement for any remodels, new development, or new landscaping for future. There has to be an incentive for people to make the change especially in these bad economic times. People just don't have the money sitting around. Actually, maybe in Shallow Alto they do, but they just don't want to do it unless forced or jammed down their throats!

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 22, 2013 at 1:56 pm

hmmm, I wonder if our households are larger than other agencies.

The more people who live in a household, the more water needs to be used. The number of people make a big difference to the amount of water use - showers, flushes, laundry, etc.

Posted by Does he have his pom poms?, a resident of Stanford
on Apr 22, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Too many trees and too many parks in Palo Alto--that is why water consumption is so high.
Time to cut back on our greenery.
Isn't the statement "one blight on the city's pristine environmental reputation" an oxymoron--if there is a blight than it cannot be pristine. Or is it just Gennady playing cheerleader for the city and the council?

Posted by Resident, a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 22, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Most of our trees & shrubs just use rainwater. Seems fine. even the lemon tree.

Posted by resident, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 22, 2013 at 4:05 pm

Most people seriously over-water their trees. Trees were growing here for thousands of years before irrigation. Yes, over-paving and global-warming do mean that rain may not be seeping in to the ground as much now as in the past, but if you choose your trees wisely, you should not have to water your trees that much. If you must water, water deeply, but infrequently.

Posted by Kate, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 22, 2013 at 4:34 pm

To EPA Folk:

Check the facts and the numbers. Palo Altans are among the top donors to charities and the needy according to county-wide statistics. And EPA Ecumenical Hunger program and facility gets a large part of its funds from Palo Alto residents and churches. So do other EPA organizations like the YMCA. St. Elizabeth Seton School's enrollment (in Palo Alto) is almost entirely children from EPA, and the Palo Alto Catholic community heavily supports that school. So if you don't have the facts, don't slam the generous donors or the city!!!!

Posted by The-Water-In-Our-Tap-Comes-From-Rain-And-Snow, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 22, 2013 at 6:33 pm

> Despite Klein's argument that the city has a
> "moral obligation" to consider water-reduction strategies,

What in the ####AS@ is Larry Klein talking about? Certainly if there were an on-going draught Palo Alto might be expected to reduce its water use—but is there an on-going draught? Well, if there is, there is no mention of that fact in this article!

Does Larry Klein believe that we are going to some third-world countries and stealing their water? Our water is part of the natural bounty of the American continent. There is nothing we can do to divert water from other locations, so that we can overwater our trees. The water we don't use is likely to evaporate back into the air, or to be released into a river somewhere to make room in a dam for more water—depending on the season, and year. We can not give away much of our water to other countries—it must be used here.

If there are people who might be wondering how much they are spending on watering their lawns, the following pictures provide examples of inexpensive water metering devices:

Web Link

Most of these devices cost around $50. If you are concerned about your bills, then why not install one of these devices on the spigot which you use for watering, and see just how much water you are using for your greenery. You can also put timers on these outlets, reducing the amount of water you use.

Posted by 3 Gens, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 22, 2013 at 6:37 pm

We have received a few nasty letters from PA Utilities about our water and electricity usage. I have responded four times, explaining that there are six people in the household, four adults, one toddler, one infant. That is three generations in a three bedroom two bath house ($7,000/mo mortgage). Of course we use more of everything.

Yet, they continue with the nasty letters saying we use 30% more water and electricity than our neighbors with larger houses. But the neighbors have only two or three people in those larger houses. I think it is a miracle that with twice the number of family members we only use 30% more utilities, not 100% more.

Posted by Jeff, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 22, 2013 at 6:38 pm

It would be interesting to note how many people take advantage of the water saving programs the city and the county offer. I live in a 6 unit apartment building and we got all of our vintage 1950 toilets exchanged for free. We saved tons on the water bill.

Posted by Opt out, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 22, 2013 at 6:45 pm

Why would PA utilities be sending you " nasty letters" about your electricity and water use. You are paying your bill s n time, I assume? You can opt out of those mailers that tell you were you rank relative to your neighbors In utility consumption, but those are not nasty at all. Plus you are not the only 6 person household in the city, so I do not think the city is singling you out.
This whole story sounds fishy and I think I know why.

Posted by 3 Gens, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 22, 2013 at 6:48 pm

We completely remodeled our house recently, with water-efficient faucets, toilets, shower head, washer, and dishwasher. Probably why we use only 30% more water than our neighbors with much smaller families.

All of our appliances are brand new energy-efficient models, even the furnace and water heater, as well as the fridge and oven. We also have insulated windows throughout the two-story house. All this seems to be lost on PA Utilities, which continues to harass us.

Short of a court order, I do not know what else to do.

Posted by 3 Gens, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 22, 2013 at 6:54 pm

Opt Out: The first letter was not nasty, but the next four were. They seemed to have the impression we were ignoring them. For all I know, other six person families get these letters as well. Perhaps we are the only six person family in a three bedroom two bath house?

If I can opt out, I will. We pay ALL of our bills as soon as they come in. If we know we will be traveling, we pay double in advance.

Posted by Opt out, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 22, 2013 at 6:59 pm

I still do not understand what the utilities department is " harassing you" about. You pay your bills your usage s irrelevant. What in the letter is " nasty" ? Are they threatening you? Why do they think you are ignoring them. Provide us with the text of the letters.

Posted by The-Water-In-Our-Tap-Comes-From-Rain-And-Snow, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 22, 2013 at 7:09 pm

If you don't want to get these letters, then call the Utility Customer Service tomorrow and request to be removed from the utilities monitoring program.

Posted by confused, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 22, 2013 at 9:44 pm

Let's get this straight. Palo Alto per capita water usage is among
the very highest, whatever the explanation, that's not a good thing.
We are in unprecedented drought this calendar year and don't know
the prospects for rainfall next year. But we'll continue to dewater
sites for residential basement construction without restriction
which might require pumping out 6-8 million gallons of water per site which is mostly sent into the Bay. Then we get a letter from the City telling us that our household use is above average, and we need to conserve. Then the City Council congratulates itself on being in the environmental forefront nationally, globally. The greenhouse gas emissions from the traffic congestion from the over-development which are contributing to the death of the Magnolia trees on University Ave are being offset by other measures as we calculate it out, but the trees don't know that. We can continue the
over-development policies because we have ways of offsetting through other measures the greenhouse gases from the increased traffic and can show a net improvement and clearly establish Palo Alto as an
environmental leader. I guess it works. What do you think?

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 23, 2013 at 6:25 am

We learned long ago that mandated conservation is always set in terms of percentage, never in absolute terms. For example California state law (Senate Bill SB X7-7 2009) whereby Palo Alto must reduce per capita water consumption 20 percent by 2020.

The lesson is that if you want anything in the future, you'd better be using an awful lot of it today.

Posted by The-Water-In-Our-Tap-Comes-From-Rain-And-Snow, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 23, 2013 at 7:34 am

> we are in the middle of an unprecedented drought ..

Really? Well, here's what the CA Dept. of Water Resources says about that—

Web Link

Water Year 2012-13 started off with a bang with an extremely wet November and December, but our lack of precipitation since has reminded us that Mother Nature is fickle. We've seen the driest January and February on record with a combined precipitation total at only 2.3 inches. The ongoing dry conditions have prompted DWR to lower its initial estimated delivery of 40 percent to 35 percent of the slightly more than 4 million acre-feet of State Water Project water requested this year.


There have been drought years in the past, that have been identified by the appropriate government agencies. While 2013 is turning out to be a dry year, there does not seem to be any clear pronouncement of "unprecedented drought" by government officials, to date.

If Palo Alto is being expected to reduce its water consumption, then we need to look at all users—commercial, schools, City, and residential. It would also not be a bad idea if the Utility were to provide meaningful information about statewide conditions, and Palo Alto's "share" of the conservation goals. With three "communications officers", it would seem like there are more than enough people available to make this sort of information available in a timely, and accurate, fashion.

There is plenty of recycled water available to the City for uses like watering public spaces, but redistribution is a problem because new pipe would have to be laid—which can cost $400-$600/linear foot. Since the City's timeline is more or less infinite, these costs can be amortized over the next 50-100 years, however. But adding another water distribution system for recycled water is a big project, which offers very limited returns at the moment.

Any issues about water purity (residual salinity seems to be an issue for some) need to be sorted out quickly.

Posted by Low water user, a resident of Ventura
on Apr 23, 2013 at 10:00 am

There are many opportunities to be more water efficient!

Santa Clara County Water District offers FREE water audits ("Water-Wise House Calls). Once you get the audit, you are eligible for their rebate program. They have free low flow showerheads & faucet aerators, and rebates for toilets, clothes washers, irrigation equipment and even lawn replacement! Web Link

Palo Alto Public Works offers rebates for cisterns: Web Link

Laundry to landscaping grey water systems can also reduce water use. Web Link

Posted by Toady, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 23, 2013 at 10:16 am

And now everyone expects us to carry around washable reusable bags for shopping.

Stupid government stuff. Again.

Posted by j99, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 23, 2013 at 11:03 am

Stop building apartments and the water use will go down. With this endless importing of "affordable housing" people who are subsidized by taxpayers anyway there is no incenetive to save water or anything else. No more apartments will decrease water usage.
And I completely agree with Toady, bring back the plastic bags, the US has 47 million people on food stamps that can walk around neighoborhoods picking them up and making themselves productive.

Posted by palo alto parent, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 23, 2013 at 11:12 am

Only some local cities and towns are part of this Agency. Atherton, Portola Valley, Saratoga and Woodside for example are not included. These are cities we are should also be comparing ourselves (think landscaping, backyard pools, relative ability to afford high water bills). Not that we shouldn't conserve water, electricity, etc. but lets compare apples to apples.

The list of "members" Web Link

Posted by Blowing Smoke, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 23, 2013 at 11:20 am

First off, Palo Alto's water rates are sky high. Among the highest in the nation. That is the main reason why our water bills are exorbitant compared to other cities.

The per capita usage of water is likely comparable with other cities with similar demographics (lot size, income level).

This is just the Utilities Departments clever way of trying to justify higher rates (again).

Don't buy their crap.

Posted by tuned, a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 23, 2013 at 1:20 pm

some people are tuned into news events. they see the large amount of water that businesees use just to mop floor in front of building, as if there were ''radiation cooties'' on the ''dirty ground''. now this. also needles sprinkler that are on when its raining!!

Posted by JanN, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 23, 2013 at 2:19 pm

We Need QUICK warm water. It takes a lot of water going down the drain getting WARM or HOT water. Can we work on that?

Posted by nannyUtility, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 23, 2013 at 2:28 pm

@3 gens -- what you say makes sense to me. Usually we receive praise about our energy use, but lately, the tone has switched to a "your not doing enough" and "your neighbors are doing much better". But we've been sick lately and due to changes at work, we've been home a lot. So of course we are using more energy. That is not the Utility's business. We should have to contact our Utility to explain why we are using more energy. And, the Utility has the wrong size of our house, they are missing the extra square footage we added on. Do I have to report this to the Utility? Geezzz. Franky, the Utility would needs loads of data in order to properly evaluate usage and make comparisons. Besides, it can be a choice if one family spends more on water because they have a pool but another spends more on vacations. That is not the Utility's business.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 23, 2013 at 2:59 pm

Here's a link to the most recent BAWSCA statistics that I could find (2010-11): Web Link

Apparently the average East Palo Alto family uses 20 percent more water and pays 20 percent less for it. As noted in some comments above, the number of family members or the size of lot is not accounted.

Palo Alto's single family monthly 13.0 ccf is 13x748/30 = 324 gallons per day, so the 100 gal/day figure noted in the article must be assuming 3.2 residents per water bill.

@nannyUtility: This does become the utility's business when the well runs dry. Unless we can tolerate part of the year when nothing comes out of the faucet. Now is the time to formulate suggestions for how we ration. How about by seniority, those residents who arrived most lately get cut off first? Or by price, everybody gets 1 ccf per month at the normal rate, and the rest is auctioned off?

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 23, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Water rate increases due to infrastructure upgrades, etc, is a bit of misdirection.

Palo Alto utilities are expensive because the city siphons off cash from them in order to fund excessive spending elsewhere -- such as outrageous retirement benefits for public employee, for Jim Keene's swelling staff of assistants, for teams of planners negotiating over-code projects for months or years, etc.

I want a rate cut.

Posted by Silly, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 23, 2013 at 5:14 pm

I want a rate cut, too. I'm tired of subsidizing our declining sales tax revenues with ridiculous rates.

I'm tired of the incessant and costly mailings from the city telling us to cut even more when we've cut everything we can -- showers, flushes, watering the back-yard dirt. I'm tired of they're not being able to discount for trash pickup stoppages. I'm tired of their cross-word puzzles and competitive usage stats. I'm tired of their giveaway stickies.

Meanwhile, the fire hydrant I can see from my window keeps on leaking and the storm sewers don't drain near us don't drain. I've told Utilities about it multiple times.

Posted by nannyUtility, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 23, 2013 at 6:47 pm

@Musical -- If our utility is worried that the well could run dry (as you put it), why are our city leaders allowing so much high density housing going in right now, especially in south Palo Alto? The size of these apartments/condos complexes is huge and dwarfs what we have had allowed to be built in the past. If they are that worried about water, seems our Utility and city leaders would caution that we don't have enough water for so many new high density housing projects.

And, our Utility can charge more for what they consider to be excessive use of water, a two tiered system. And that is what they are doing right now! So, really no need to pry into intimate details our of daily lives to evaluate our efficiency.

Those Utility flyers are a waste of money because they can't be accurate without lots more data on us.

Posted by 3 Gens, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 23, 2013 at 7:41 pm

The last four letters have asked if we received the previous letters, as our water and electricity usage has not decreased yet. I have responded to four of the five letters they have sent in the last 18 mos by explaining to them the number of people in the house, and that now that I have MS, I am home all day with the grandchildren, using the heat and water, cooking, etc. yet, a few months later, they send me the exact same letter, showing how my neighbors with smaller families use less, did I not get the previous letters, etc.

I finally called today, and aster forty minutes on hold, asked them to please knock it off.

Posted by resident, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 23, 2013 at 10:40 pm

Agree with Silly. Its pay more and more while we all use less and less per person at home! Maybe its due to ever increasing personnel and useless programs costs..those incredibly mindless computer generated comparison letters cost money too. We need a clear accounting of commercial, retail, office and residential use. Bet all those gyms and restaurants and public sprinklers use a lot more water. Just like even if one has zero garbage, one still has to pay more than ever.

Posted by The-Water-In-Our-Tap-Comes-From-Rain-And-Snow, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 24, 2013 at 8:11 am

The following simple equation closely estimates the total water use here in Palo Alto—

Total City Water Use ~= Commercial + Residential
+ Fire Department + Schools
+ Parks + Other City Use
+ Emergency Storage;

Since Palo Alto's water is metered, there is no reason that virtually all of the water use can be determined accurately.

So—why can't the so-called "Communications Manager" for the Utility obtain that information for the past five years, and post the water use on the Utility's web-site, or in the Open Data web-site, that City Manager James Keene seems to have taken credit for recently?

There is no reason other than the City treats its residents, and utility rate payers, like potted plants!

Posted by The-Water-In-Our-Tap-Comes-From-Rain-And-Snow, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 24, 2013 at 8:26 am

Water prices are determined from their basic cost components: 1) cost-of-product, 2) cost-of-labor (salaries and benefits), 3) distribution costs (in-ground infrastructure), 4) Administrative overhead, 5) general operational costs, 6) pass-thru to General Fund, 7) transfers to Reserves, 8) Rents For Office Space in City-owned buildings, 9) Interest payment on bonds, 10) Utility Users Tax (UUT), 11) Other

Why can't the so-called "Communications Manager" for the Utility obtain this information from the Utility's internal accounting and post it on the Utility's web-pages, and upload the data to the City's Open Data web-site?

There is no reason that that City can not produce this information—other than the City management does not want people to know the truth about the true cost of the Utility's "products". Labor costs are becoming increasingly burdensome because the City operates under a compensation system that parallels the private sector—frequently compensates its employees at a higher wage rate from the private sector. This is particularly true when the pension payouts are seen as deferred salary—effectively doubling the actual salaries for municipal employees.

The City Council could demand that the Utility open up its "books", be we keep electing people like Larry Klein and Liz Kniss—who have no interest in putting this information in the hands of the ratepayers. Every time we vote for new Council members we have the power in our own hands to effect change. But we don't. We keep the same cast of failed characters on the stage. Why?

Posted by Really?, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 24, 2013 at 9:15 am

To 3 Gens - I am really curious as to how you are receiving harassing letter from the City of Palo Utilities. Utilities are expensive in this city, contrary to what the city and utilities department tries to spin. I have lived in both Sacramento, and San Francisco, and my utilities were always significantly lower than in Palo Alto for the same amount of living space. The utilities department does send out the letters comparing your household utility usage to your neighbors, but these are not harassing, and everyone receives these letters, unless you opt out. Personally, I feel to send this information is wasteful both financially, and time wise, but again we are talking about Palo Alto where money is always wasted on consultants and things the city or residents do not need, like the most recent - a bike, walk overpass - give us a break for 2.5 million - really?

Posted by It's All Nuts, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 24, 2013 at 9:46 am

To Toady - I will be boycotting all the stores due to the plastic bag ban, and the paper bag charges. I did my last visit to CVS, Safeway, and Walmart in Mountain View. Fortunately, in Palo Alto the ban is not yet effective, so those stores will still get my money until the ban is effective. I realize the stores did not choose to implement the plastic bag ban policy, but most of them seem to support the so called cause. Good, because my money is hard earned, and I will not spend it in any retail environment that supports charging customers for paper bags, and makes it overall difficult for customers to handle their purchased goods. When I read about the Traders Joe's in San Carlos charging customers for paper bags before the respective effective date of their city's ban in July - that makes it clear that those very establishments are not supporting the customers. But, shame on all these city governments wasting time with such policies that make it more difficult for shoppers/customers who support their governments via sales tax. Who cares if they use their own bags in Europe, this is not Europe, and there is no evidence that there is a problem with recycling of either paper or plastic bags.

Posted by Kate, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 24, 2013 at 10:29 am

We have never received one of these 'letters' and most of our friends haven't either.
And if we get one, it goes right into the junk mail box with all the other Utility paper. This city is going downhill rapidly, and more so under the reign of Jim Keene. I thought Benest's administration was bad, but Keene's takes the prize for 'badness'. This council has 'lost it'. The council is not stopping the proliferation of high paid 'executives' and so-called experts. The city is becoming a joke due to 1) council, 2) Keene, and 3) an out of control bureaucracy. What can we do to reverse this? A recall - for starters??

Posted by Outrageous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 24, 2013 at 3:59 pm

Kate talks about an "out of control" bureaucarcy. Everybody like the new ugly street barrier at Addison/Channing which you might see at
a highway construction site and which actually constricts the bike lane making it almost impassable if a car is parked there? Welcome
to Palo Alto.

Posted by JanN, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 28, 2013 at 12:44 am

Our water usage....seems that we could get heated water quickly, OTHERWISE, we waste lots of water just trying to warm it UP to use it.

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