Residents catch Palo Alto wasting water

Photographs, calls indicate city needs to heed its own water restrictions

One day after the City of Palo Alto adopted water-use restrictions for businesses and residents, mushrooms growing in city planter boxes and water cascading onto sidewalks and streets indicate the city will also need to correct its own water waste.

The City Council voted on Aug. 4 in favor of prohibiting the use of potable water in fountains, on sidewalks and in driveways. The restrictions are in response to a State Water Resources Control Board decision that urban water suppliers such as Palo Alto must restrict outdoor irrigation due to the drought.

But the city will have its work cut out for itself to find and repair its own leaking infrastructure. In recent weeks, residents have been calling the city to report water waste on city properties as well as at businesses and residences, according to staff.

That city waste appears to be occurring throughout Palo Alto. On Cambridge Avenue, 42 planter boxes on the north side of the Lot 5 parking garage received a liberal watering every morning this week, with water running down the concrete walls and flowing over the sidewalk and into the street. An 18-inch-wide stream made its way down the gutter and into a nearby storm drain.

Mushrooms sprouted in some of 27 empty planter boxes on the parking garage's north side. On the south side, most planters contained dead shrubs that also appeared well-watered, with pools collecting on the adjacent roadway.

Water waste on city and school properties, as residents have reported to the Weekly and posted on Palo Alto Online's Town Square, include water from sprinklers on the Meadow Drive side of Mitchell Park flowing into the street on Tuesday night and a broken water line at Greer Park the same day, flooding Colorado Avenue. Irrigation at Johnson Park in the Downtown North neighborhood has watered the sidewalk, and some residents have questioned the continuous water flows in city fountains and playground water features.

Catherine Elvert, spokeswoman for Palo Alto Utilities, said the department receives between 10 and 12 complaints per week about offending residences, businesses, churches and city properties. To combat its own inefficiencies, the city is convening drought-response teams that include staff from parks, public works and other departments. The city plans to increase water reuse, she said. A Santa Clara Valley Water District grant to upgrade city facility meters will help locate leaks.

Irrigation in parks and of city trees could also be curtailed, she added.

The city is developing a mobile-device application for residents to report water waste, and the department plans to hire a water-waste coordinator to handle all calls and field the reports, she said.

The city is already taking steps to watch its water use. In Mitchell Park, the water feature in the children's playground is only on from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. now due to the drought, a sign noted.

And underground water being pumped out of land that will be used to build basements will be recycled for use by the city's street sweepers, for dust control at construction sites and for other projects that can use nonpotable water. City Senior Engineer Mike Nafziger estimated the city saved 6,000 gallons during the first two days of a pilot program that stored the water for use by the street sweeper.

In the future, the city could make the underground water available to residents. The city is requiring the construction of a water tank for projects that require dewatering as a condition of approval, he said.

While the city is working on its conservation plans, its oversight of water use by the Palo Alto Unified School District is less clear when it comes to the state restrictions, Elvert said.

A photograph from one Weekly reader showed a school-district employee hosing down the pavement at Palo Alto High School on July 31. Rebecca Navarro, school district energy specialist and manager of energy conservation, said district maintenance is looking for places to curtail power washing. But the district's first obligation is to the health and safety of students, and some areas might still require power washing to remain safe.

The district's transportation department usually washes school buses during the summer to prepare for the school year, but that practice has been put on hold, she said. The supervisor is looking for green alternatives to hand washing the buses, including having them efficiently cleaned off site. But safety concerns will also come first.

"We can't have dirty windows that would affect the drivers' visibility," she said.

The district has taken several aggressive initiatives to reduce its water use in the past year. A partnership with local nonprofit organization Acterra through the Sustainable Schools Committee resulted in replacing some water-sucking lawns with drought-tolerant native plants. El Carmelo, Addison and Walter Hays elementary schools have replaced their lawns; Nixon and other schools will also be targeted. The replacement reaped educational benefits, she said. Students participated in the project and learned about native ecosystems.

The district also worked with the city on an expensive program to add low-flow aerators to all hand-washing sinks district-wide. As a result, the district reduced water use from that source by 50 percent in six months, she said. Nixon and Escondido elementary schools remain the only outliers -- they are on the Stanford University water system -- but Stanford plans to add the devices at those schools, she said.

The district has automated irrigation systems that can be adjusted remotely, and maintenance workers routinely check to eliminate pavement watering, she said.

"We've had a practice in place for a long time to do watering in the evenings when the sun isn't out to evaporate it," she said.

Elvert said that residents and businesses who are wasting water are receiving door hangers informing them of the municipal code, and city employees have been tagging some homes, she said.

Staff will soon bring a plan for citations and fines before the City Council for approval. Some exceptions will be made for businesses, such as restaurants, that hose pavement to keep surfaces clean under health and safety codes, she said.

But city fountains remain flowing for now. The city initially discussed requiring fountains to be turned off, but some shopping-district businesses objected because the fountains have aesthetic appeal, she said. The drought-response team will discuss whether to allow some fountains to be left on for a short period.

Stanford University, meanwhile, is also laying down the law, asking faculty and staff living on campus to water lawns or turf no more than two days a week. Effective Aug. 1, lawns at even-numbered addresses can only be watered Tuesday and Saturday nights, and on Wednesday and Sunday nights for odd-numbered addresses, between the hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.

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Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 8, 2014 at 8:57 am

I know their is extensive use of non-potable water for irrigation purposes throughout the city. How is someone supposed to know whether the water is potable or not?

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 8, 2014 at 9:07 am

How about the city putting some pressure on the powers that be to demand California build a desalination plant. The cost is moot, water should be charged above a certain level so that consumers can choose how much water they use by cost rather than any other criteria.

It is abysmal to think that a coastal state has never used the water along the coast to alleviate droughts.

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 8, 2014 at 9:50 am

According to the City's Water Quality Plant web-page, about 7 billion gallons of treated water is discharged into the bay. While this water is not potable, it can be used to water grass, and wash sidewalks.

The City is using a significant amount of recycled water on the golf course, but the amount of recycled water used else where by the City is less clear.

The high volume of water output by the recycled plant calls into question what it would cost to upgrade the facility so that potable water is output by the plant?

1 person likes this
Posted by Ronald
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 8, 2014 at 9:59 am

Are basements under construction regulated for water waste? Many new homes are tapping into the aquifer and sending water down storm drains for weeks or months 24/7.

Like this comment
Posted by My lawn is dead
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 8, 2014 at 10:04 am

Those businesses on Page Mill have sprawling green, fluffy lawns so you know they are watering daily. It's beautiful, but shouldn't the city force them to stop watering?

Like this comment
Posted by Concerned
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 8, 2014 at 10:13 am

I also noticed that grass was planted in the new Oregon Expressway median and spray heads water this grass. Why doesn't the city replace the grass with drought tolerant plants and a drip irrigation system?

Like this comment
Posted by Desalination only for irrigation
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Aug 8, 2014 at 10:41 am

I don't know if anyone has ever tasted desalinated water... not pleasant by any stretch. If the state does do this, it would be great for irrigation, not drinking. For anyone who has ever had to drink the terrible liquid for medical purposes, that is what desalinated water tastes like.

Remember brown is the new green these days. Let the lawn go so we have clean water to drink.

Like this comment
Posted by Gethin
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2014 at 10:42 am

Gethin is a registered user.

Seale Park around 10 pm - the spray heads are incorrectly set and water is pouring down the gutters. They are probably wasting more water in one day than I use on my two gardens in a month, before I turned them off that is.

Like this comment
Posted by Cheryl Lilienstein
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 8, 2014 at 10:45 am

Frequently, watering the playing fields at Gunn High School produces a rush of water in Barron Creek.

I thought the plan for those fields was astroturf. What happened to that?

Like this comment
Posted by Sparty
a resident of another community
on Aug 8, 2014 at 10:48 am

Sparty is a registered user.

Easy way to save water== Don't eat out.

of course this would have to be at the level of putting some places out of business. And the places that are not fast food are going to be the biggest users of water

1 person likes this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2014 at 10:56 am

Until 100% of basement dewatering water is recycled it should be banned. ALL 6 million gallons of it.

Like this comment
Posted by another person
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Aug 8, 2014 at 11:12 am

Why do we have to call each other in? Doesn't this sound a little Big Brother or reminiscent of our last world war?? How about the idea of rates increasing if you use more than a certain amount... a very substantial hike might stop people from wasting! If not, and people are willing to over water and spend lots of money, use that money for the upgrades to our city watering systems, desalination plants and other infrastructural needs.

personally, I think it's despicable that we've got to the point of tattle tailing on each other. Next we'll be calling in about a light bulb on for too long.

Like this comment
Posted by common sense
a resident of Atherton
on Aug 8, 2014 at 11:19 am

another person---thanks so much for your post! I agree 100%!

Like this comment
Posted by dave
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 8, 2014 at 11:32 am

Desal takes a lot of energy input, and unless that is solar or wind, the energy used for desal contributes to climate change, which quite arguably is a contributing factor to the current drought. There ain't no free lunch. reduce. reuse. recycle. now more than ever.

Like this comment
Posted by Sparty
a resident of another community
on Aug 8, 2014 at 11:36 am

Sparty is a registered user.

"Why do we have to call each other in? Doesn't this sound a little Big Brother or reminiscent of our last world war?? How about the idea of rates increasing if you use more than a certain amount... a very substantial hike might stop people from wasting! "

This would unfairly target minorities who are statistically have larger families--not just children but extended families living in the same home.

[Portion removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Jomad
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 8, 2014 at 11:36 am

Who is hiring these bright landscapers and urban planners that are planting these thirsty grasses and bushes along our roadways??? Use native plants and grasses. We are all going to did of thirst, but at least we will have lush green grass.

City of Palo Alto hires some serious nitwits, especially considering their reputation for being such an intelligent and progressive town.

Like this comment
Posted by Lynne
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 8, 2014 at 11:37 am

I have just been walking outside and came across guinda and channing there is a church that is completely wasting water who do we put people into as the water is running onto the concrete and down the drain.......

Like this comment
Posted by Midtown Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2014 at 11:41 am

I am a little confused about this article. If the City staff are proposing a series of fines and citations for watering offenses, are they planning on citing and fining themselves, considering the list of violations posted in this article? And if they are considering exceptions to the fountain bans for aesthetic purposes, aren't all fountains for aesthetic purposes? Or are these water regulations only to enable people to snitch on each other but not for the City? Seems to me this creates a pretty poisonous atmosphere for Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by Jenny
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 8, 2014 at 11:58 am

It is my understanding that most of the water used for watering parks, medians and landscaping in Palo Alto is recycled water.

Desalinization is a hugely expensive way of providing water. Re-cycling waste water is much cheaper. In the 1980s my husband was involved in the technology to re-cycle water. Unfortunately, the public rejected recycled water and the first plant that was ever built for this purpose sent all its water down a hillside in the Sierras.

If humans will not accept recycled water for drinking, it can be used for landscaping on private property. However, this would require a whole different set of infrastructure and another set piping would need to be built throughout the City.

Like this comment
Posted by Julian
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2014 at 12:05 pm

@Jomad: first sensible comment in this whole thread. Unfortunately, as with pretty much all civic subjects in Palo Alto, it goes back to getting rid of the idiots downtown.

@Midtown Resident: You're kidding, right?! Public employees holding themselves accountable to public rules?! That's today's laugh, thanks! As Orwell put it: Some animals are more equal than others.

Like this comment
Posted by Lorraine
a resident of Portola Valley
on Aug 8, 2014 at 12:17 pm

I don't think we should be pumping ground water out for basement construction. It's more than water wasteful, we are going to have major subsidence from removing the aquifers. Soon all of Eastern Palo Alto will be below sea level!

1 person likes this
Posted by citizen
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 8, 2014 at 12:24 pm

I agree with Ronald. Basement construction has been a shameful waste of water.

Saving it for street sweepers?! Sounds like a bogus feel-good response.
A drop out of the bucket, so to speak.
I've watched so many basements go in... A strong stream of water tends to run down
the sewer 24/7 for months while they build.

How big a water tank are they gonna build to store all this dewatered water?

Like this comment
Posted by Hermia
a resident of Triple El
on Aug 8, 2014 at 12:59 pm

It makes sense to me that fountains in public areas and grass at the parks be left till pretty late in the scheme of things to restrict. Those are providing benefit to the whole community, or at least as many as desire it. I'd rather have the city use the water that would fuel ten private fountains to make a fountain available to hundreds or thousands than start by cutting them off but keeping our individual aesthetic islands going.

Start with waste, in all its many manifestations. Plan for less use by planting for climate.
But a few soft public spaces that serve the whole community is not the place to *start*, even if eventually they have to go too.

Like this comment
Posted by Old Codger
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 8, 2014 at 1:30 pm

Well for the record, my little lawn is toasty brown and I am thinking of replacing it, but if I did want to irrigate it two days a week, the new city restrictions are clueless and confusing. Even numbered addresses can water on Tuesday and Saturday and odd numbered addresses can water on Wednesday and Sunday, between the hours of 7pm and 7am. Suppose I have an even numbered address and I want to water on Tuesday. Does that mean I can water from 7pm Tuesday night to 7am Wednesday morning or does it mean I can water from midnight Monday night to 7am Tuesday morning and 7pm Tuesday night to midnight Tuesday night? Not clear! The second interpretation may be the most accurate, but that would mean I could water 4 times a week, which I don't think was the intent. Come on Palo Alto, we can do better than this!

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 8, 2014 at 1:52 pm

I agree with Hermia's post. There are valid examples of unnecessary water waste all over, public and private, and these should be fixed.
I don't agree with tattling on others.
From the article it sounded like the city is pretty slow to correct situations that they have been alerted to about CITY water waste - like water running down the street from city park overwatering. Meantime, I do NOT want to destroy my valuable landscaping that I have worked very hard on and that adds beauty to my neighborhood and city. I do NOT want everyone else to destroy theirs, to let city parks go dry and brown and be fire hazards and to have an ugly city. Of course, new landscaping (whether commercial or residential) should be sensitive/aware to the challenges we have periodically with water availability. I have lived here a couple of time periods with flooding and excessive rainfall. How about planning ahead to capture some of that, advise us on installing rain barrels, making info available so we can plan for that properly.
I disagree with neighbors tattling on neighbors, as they may be unaware of watering practices. (I don't mean water running down the street, that should be phoned it, I meant someone believing that a neighbor is watering "too often" by that person's judgement). I refuse to water in the middle of the night, it is noisy and leads to disease in many plants as well as snails and slugs. Yes, one should water early AM, fine.
Also, how about that fact that while I take good care of my landscaping, and do not waste water, but wish to have an attractive garden, I take OTHER steps to conserve water in other areas of my life???
Example: I had a neighbor with the PA sign" PA Green" on their front yard, all the while this person would hand wash with hose/running water his luxury vehicle. Ironic, isn't it.

Like this comment
Posted by Quercus
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 8, 2014 at 1:56 pm

I don't think there is much use of non-potable water for irrigation in Palo Alto except for Greer park and the golf course:
Web Link

"In the Palo Alto Region, recycled water is used for irrigation of parks and golf courses and habitat restoration. Recycled water is used for landscape irrigation at Palo Alto Golf Course, Shoreline Golf Course and Greer Park. In 1993, the Emily Renzel Marsh was formed, which is a freshwater marsh filled with recycled water."

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 8, 2014 at 1:57 pm

Not to lay it on too thick, but what I meant is that unless someone like Big Brother were to do a comprehensive analysis of our individual lives, it is unclear how much we are wasting water. Just looking at someone's garden is not a full or valid analysis of that, UNLESS there is a violation NOW such as water running down the street, into the gutter. I think it's amusing some pat themselves on the back for having lower water bills because they are not showering at home...they shower at the gym! As if that made a difference in the long run. I haven't paid for gym membership and so shower at home, and I should be reprimanded because my water bill is higher?!

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 8, 2014 at 2:00 pm

Near my residence, Duveneck Elementary School is completing a long-running major construction and remodeling project. I understand they will have a new field (sod or seed?) which will be watered and I thought not even available to the children until sometime in October. I think elementary schools SHOULD have fields, yes use good practices, but with a brand-new field I assume the grass will have to be babied and heavily watered, should be stop that??? I think not. Let's all be reasonable and fix egregious problems such as shown in the initial article but not take away children's schools' natural grass.

Like this comment
Posted by anciana
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 8, 2014 at 3:18 pm

During the last really bad drought, I let all of my side landscaping on one side of the house, except for a large camellia, go dry, and since it isn't visible from the street, it is not an eyesore to anyone but me.

For this drought, I have let my back yard lawn go. There it sits, brown, brown, brown. Inside the house, I save all the water in the kitchen and shower while waiting for it to change to hot or to cold. This usually gives me enough water, for watering my patio pots. I never let the water run while I am brushing my teeth. little things make a difference.

In both the front and the back, I have some gorgeous 50-year-old rhododendrons which I planted, and I'm not going to let them go dry. Period. I have a rain barrel, I do everything else that I possible can, but there are some limits. I do hand water most areas in front of my house, which has a variety of plants, but no lawn, for the pleasure of myself, my friends and my neighbors.

I'm waiting, and hoping, and waiting, for a wet winter. May that happen!

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 8, 2014 at 4:16 pm

To those criticizing PA for the plantings in the new Oregon Expressway medians...please redirect your anger at the County of Santa Clara. OrEx is a county road...PA has no control and no responsibilities on this project.

Like this comment
Posted by HUTCH 7.62
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 8, 2014 at 5:14 pm

Not to long ago most of South Palo Alto was on wells. In fact the city still owns several wells. There is one next to peers park. During the last major drought the city often used these wells.

Like this comment
Posted by Catherine Elvert
a resident of another community
on Aug 8, 2014 at 9:40 pm

I normally do not reply to online blogs like this, but I thought it would be good to address a few questions and clear up some inaccuracies. - Catherine Elvert, Communications Manager for the City of Palo Alto Utilities

To Mike, non-potable water (i.e. water that has been used at least once, is untreated, or has been used but not treated to drinking water standards) such as recycled water, rainwater or graywater needs to be marked with a sign labeling it as unpotable. Identification is supposed to include the indistinguishable lavender color for signage and piping such as irrigation lines. The City will use recycled water for irrigation or other non-potable purposes in areas where it is available. We has a Recycled Water Master Plan for expansion of the distribution system. With your continued support, hopefully we can continue to progress on this capital improvement project, which also serves as a sustainable, drought-proof water supply for a semi-arid Palo Alto city.

To Midtown Resident (and others), these new restrictions apply to City facilities and parks. Our staff is working hard around the clock to upgrade, replace or otherwise tune and fix irrigation systems to ensure highest efficiency of water use. Please continue to let us know when you see problems. We can't be everywhere all the time, so we appreciate your eyes and ears on the street. Thank you for your diligence in helping us keep care of these areas.

We try to encourage all businesses and residents to landscape appropriately with plants that are suited for use at a particular site and work well with our natural environment. There are times when turf grass is appropriate and we encourage all to work hard to ensure that irrigation water is applied as efficiently as possible. In areas where turf grass is not appropriate, we encourage people to consider replacing it with native, low water use plants. We'll pay you to do it! Right now, turf grass rebates are the highest they've ever been and the highest in the world! We also pay rebates for upgrading or replacing irrigation hardware to modern, efficient hardware.

Please take advantage of these resources and/or let your friends and neighbors know about them! All information on water supply conditions, usage restrictions and important resources can be found at

Thank you to all for helping us do everything to help stretch our water supplies. Every individual makes a difference. You all have impacts on your family and friends. Let's spread the word and take care of this precious resource.

-Catherine Elvert, Communications Manager, City of Palo Alto Utilities

Like this comment
Posted by Early morning walker
a resident of Ventura
on Aug 8, 2014 at 10:06 pm

Thanks, Catherine, Elvert, for your thoughtful response. Time for all of us to replace those lawns.

Fyi, seems like Mitchell Park is getting overwatered. At 6:30 AM this Thursday, there were some big wet muddy patches. Possible to cut back on the watering?

Like this comment
Posted by Daddy'O
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 8, 2014 at 10:12 pm

The maintenance of the median on Oregon Expressway is the responsibility of The City Of Palo Alto. The contractors have installed "top soil" from Stevens Creek Reservoir Quarry. This is not top-soil, just clay that is ground up. After one year this product will turn into a cement like product not suitable for plantlike material. Trust me, I learned the hard way about this product.
So please, stick with what you know.

As my neighbor has always said about Palo Alto residents; Over educated under intelligent.

Like this comment
Posted by HUTCH 7.62
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 8, 2014 at 11:43 pm

"As my neighbor has always said about Palo Alto residents; Over educated under intelligent."

LMAO well that just about sum's it up.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 9, 2014 at 3:54 am

I got a kick out of that one too.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of College Terrace

on Sep 19, 2017 at 6:35 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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