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.
The topic of water conservation has risen in prominence in recent weeks, with council members debating whether to introduce recycled water for irrigation, water rates going up and Palo Altans' water use per capita remaining among the highest in the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA), a 26-member organization of suburban customers who buy their water from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
According to BAWSCA statistics, Palo Alto's average residential customer uses about 100 gallons per day, more than all but three agencies in the regional organization (only customers in Bear Gulch, Hillsborough and Purissima Hills use more). This helps explain why the city's water bills are among the highest in the region. According to BAWSCA's 2012 annual survey of partner agencies, the monthly water bill for an average single-family household in Palo Alto stood at around $65 in fiscal year 2011, well above the average of $53.
The problems of high bills and heavy usage aren't going away anytime soon. In July, Palo Alto rates are slated to go up by another 7 percent, largely because of capital upgrades to water infrastructure and the high cost of buying water wholesale. And usage, while lower than it has been in the past, is expected to rise along with the city's population.
Earlier this month, Councilman Larry Klein, who represents the city on the BAWSCA board of directors, alluded to the long-term challenges of finding water supply. Klein noted that when it comes to water usage: "We are not leading the pack here by a longshot." He alluded to the city's "extensive landscaping," particularly its generous tree supply.
"The very fact that we're a 'Tree City' means we spend an inordinate amount of money and use an inordinate amount of water compared to our colleague agencies in watering our backyards and watering the plants in the (Stanford) Research Park and so forth," Klein said during an April 1 discussion of whether the city should consider using recycled water for irrigation in the Research Park.
Despite Klein's argument that the city has a "moral obligation" to consider water-reduction strategies, the proposal to study a switch to recycled water proved controversial on the council, which failed to get enough votes on April 1 to proceed with the study (two members, Mayor Greg Scharff and Councilwoman Karen Holman, voted against further study out of concern that salt water would cause harm to soil and trees). The following week, when more council members were present, the council voted 6-3 to proceed with the study (with Greg Schmid joining Scharff and Holman in opposition).
While the switch to recycled water would pertain only to Stanford Research Park, Palo Alto is also considering broader strategies for raising awareness about water conservation. This Saturday, the city's Utilities Department will partner with the Tuolumne River Trust to sponsor the "Great Race for Saving Water," a water-conservation-themed 5k run and walk in the Palo Alto Baylands. Prizes will include a high-efficiency toilet and a guided canoe trip with the river trust. And on July 13, the city will sponsor a free workshop on water management.
Though Palo Alto's record on water conservation leaves plenty of room for improvement, the city has already made other major strides on the water front. According to the 2010 Urban Water Management Plan, water use per account in Palo Alto dropped by 27 percent between 2000 and 2010, with industrial customers leading the way with a 46 percent reduction. Water use for single-family-residential customers dropped by 22 percent during this period, according to the plan.
The issue of water conservation earned little mention, however, in the council's April 15 celebration of Palo Alto's recent green accomplishments. This year, there has been no shortage of these. Greenhouse-gas emissions from city operations are estimated to be 53 percent below 2005 levels, a reduction that dwarfs the city's goal to reduce them by 20 percent, according to staff from Utilities and Public Works departments. Their report states that the measures that reduced these emissions had also trimmed the city's costs for electricity, natural gas and vehicular fuel by about $500,000 annually. Furthermore, emissions from the city and the community combined dropped by about 22 percent between 2005 and 2012. The council's goal was to reduce them by 15 percent by 2020.
The report notes that the reduction in greenhouse gas was largely achieved by purchasing greener electricity supplies, pursuing aggressive gas- and electricity-efficiency programs, promoting conservation efforts and undertaking energy-efficiency projects at the plant. The council greeted the latest results with enthusiasm, with Councilman Pat Burt saying that the new report "shows some really significant accomplishments that we suspected and hoped were occurring, but until this report we didn't really have data to confirm any of this." He called the recent results "really outstanding" and noted that the council had considered its emission-reduction targets aggressive when it was setting them in 2007.
"Frankly, when we look at this a few years ago, this kind of reduction that we've already achieved was in reality thought of as a stretch goal," Burt said.
Now, Palo Alto is poised to make some new goals as part of a new "sustainability plan." In the coming weeks, the city plans to hire its first chief sustainability officer, who will help implement the plan, which will be compiled in the coming year in collaboration with a "sustainability" board drawn from various departments throughout City Hall. Assistant Public Works Director Phil Bobel told the council last week that work on the new plan will commence this year.
Council members voiced no objections to raising the city's green goals even higher, though Councilman Marc Berman compared it to a "pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie." Berman praised the city's recent efforts to curb emissions and meet its ambitious goals.
"Now, it's exciting to set new goals that are even more ambitious and see if we can meet those," Berman said.