Water district candidates focus on drought, flooding

Incumbent Brian Schmidt and challenger Gary Kremen approach issues with diverging styles

The winner in the race for a single seat at the Santa Clara Valley Water District will take on major challenges if elected to represent District 7 this November. He will face a deepening drought and lingering problems with downstream flooding when the rains do come.

The two candidates, incumbent and board Vice Chairman Brian Schmidt and challenger Gary Kremen are seeking the largely north county seat, which includes the cities of Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos and Los Gatos. And they have very different styles when it comes to tackling the major issues. Schmidt, an environmental attorney who has served on the board since 2010, takes a detailed approach that favors collaboration; he has represented the district on flooding issues at the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority and is on the district's Water Conservation Ad Hoc Committee, which drafted the district's response to the drought.

Kremen, board president of the Purissima Hills Water District in Los Altos Hills and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, prefers an aggressive tack that would use political influence to rise above foot-dragging bureaucracies to get the problems solved.

Their campaign spending also reflects their approaches. Schmidt has spent modestly, garnering $13,000 in campaign funds and spending only about $8,000; Kremen has amassed a war chest of more than $280,000, most of it self-funded.

The candidates sat down for interviews with the Palo Alto Weekly. Here are their views about their experience and approaches to district problems.

Brian Schmidt

A Mountain View resident, Schmidt has spent 15 years working on environmental and clean-water issues. He said he has tried to make the board more transparent since his 2010 election. He made the motion to change board meetings from mornings to evenings so that more of the public could attend. And he supported cutting the board's pay, reversing a 2008 pay increase. The pay cut passed on the second vote, 4-3.

In keeping with his strong opinions about environmental cleanup, he supported the treatment and removal of toxic mercury from Jacques Gulch, a former gold-mining site in the south county identified by state and federal agencies as a major source of mercury contamination for San Francisco Bay and the Guadalupe River Watershed.

During his term, the board succeeded in getting Measure B passed with 74 percent voter approval. The parcel tax is estimated to bring in $548 million by 2028 for flood control, seismic retrofitting for the Anderson Dam and environmental improvements. The district will use some funding, combined with other sources, to contribute about $28 million toward the San Francisquito Creek flood-reduction project. Measure B fund will also go toward levee replacement and repair and wetland restoration in Shoreline Park in Mountain View.

Staff at the Regional Water Quality Control Board, which must grant the permits to begin the San Francisquito project, have so far rejected the plan. Schmidt has represented the water district on the matter and drafted responses to try to bring the impasse to a conclusion. But he is measured in how aggressively the district can attack the problem on its own. The San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority is the lead agency on the project, and the water district is a member, along with three cities in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

Schmidt believes negotiation is still possible with the regional water board, and he doesn't yet support political arm-twisting, unlike Kremen. He is working to investigate whatever is bothering the water board staff, he said.

But he is not shy about criticizing the water board. In response to an Aug. 23 story about Palo Alto officials blasting the water board's inaction, Schmidt wrote: "I find it incomprehensible that the regional board is showing such a poor understanding of hydrology as to think we could proceed right away with a project that protects East Palo Alto while failing to do construction along the Palo Alto golf course area. This would change the flooding pattern to increase impacts in Palo Alto and therefore required new environmental review and many other delays, including forcing yet another permit application to the Regional Board."

Schmidt said he is happy to have his work in the district judged, in significant part because of his work as part of the Joint Powers Authority and on the creek.

"I hustled to get environmental support for a broad compromise that included extensive funding for San Francisquito Creek," he said of his work on Measure B.

Schmidt was instrumental in drafting a water-district plan to deal with the drought.

"I led a change before the drought that increased conservation rebates. I later wrote the memo that doubled many of our water-conservation rebates, which quintupled the response for lawn replacement. We're vastly expanding recycled water, and I'm advocating treatment of wastewater to drinkable levels -- a new, drought-proof water supply," he said.

The board approved a countywide, water-use reduction target of 20 percent of 2013 water usage, and Schmidt supported two years of water storage, which he said puts the district in a good position.

But the district's 2013 carryover and 2014 allocations of state water are currently frozen to protect the Delta, leaving three water districts that depend on that banked water without that source, according to water-board documents.

The water district is now developing the California Aqueduct Reverse Flow project to ensure the water in its storage bank is available for treatment plants and to prevent groundwater depletion.

Gary Kremen

The founder has garnered considerable notice for his run, as much for his sizable self-funding of his campaign as for his stand on the issues. But Kremen is clear that he wants to see major change in how the water district does business.

Board president of the 6,400-customer Purissima Hills Water District, a water retailer in Los Altos Hills, Kremen touts his experience as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur as one of the reasons he'd be an asset to the board.

Kremen is chairman of WaterSmart Software, a tech company that creates water-meter software used by many city utilities. A leak-detection company he was involved in was recently bought by Badger Meter, he said.

"It's all part of a broader platform that I've been doing in sustainability in the last 10 years," he said.

Kremen also started Clean Power Finance, the largest company in the U.S. in solar financing.

"What I like to do is do big things that move the needle in sustainability, and I think this water district kind of needs to get off the old 1920s model and needs innovation," he said.

If elected, he would take on a California State Water Project tax he says is unfair to Palo Alto, Mountain View and Los Altos residents, who receive most of their water from the Hetch Hetchy water system through the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and not through the state. Only Mountain View's water -- 10 percent -- comes from state sources.

"The water-district board gets the money from the State Water Project, and the district as a whole gets the benefit but not us as a member of the district," he said.

Kremen said he would work to get more conservation funds for districts that use Hetch Hetchy or remove the tax entirely from Hetch Hetchy districts. The water district could get increased water-recycling money and use it to put in gray-water systems in homes, and it could receive water-conservation dollars to extend some of the recycled water across Foothill Expressway into areas of Palo Alto and Los Altos Hills, he said.

Schmidt has characterized Kremen's solutions as unrealistic. The other six board members would not vote for a tax exemption or increased funding to help the north county district, he said.

But Kremen said they might do "some horsetrading," albeit within the confines of the Brown Act.

"People had some needs that were not being met," he said of discussions he has had with board members.

Building coalitions on a regional level will be key to getting things accomplished, and the water district should be using its clout, he said. He pointed to the district's handling of the Regional Water Quality Control Board, which recently denied permits for the San Francisquito Creek flood-control project.

"The water district is the one with some good money. They have discretionary money, and they have their own lobbyist in Sacramento. They touch a lot of people in politics more than other people do," he said. "We may need to use the water district's political muscle and money to do a legislative end run around this issue."

The Regional Water Quality Control Board might need to be defunded from looking at the San Francisquito issue or their regulatory purview might need to move someplace else, he said.

"The water district has not spearheaded doing that. I would take it away from (the Regional Board) if they don't move," he said.

Kremen is also critical of the water district's approach to the drought. Despite 2012's Measure B funding, the district hasn't started upgrading Anderson and Calero dams.

"In the event it rains, we can't even store all the rainwater because the water district has not fixed its dams" for seismic safety, he said, as it is required to do by the state Division of Safety of Dams. The district cannot keep the water higher than 20 feet below the dam crest until the repairs are made, he added.

Kremen also called the water exchange, the one that involves banked water and the Delta, "a debacle."

"Instead of focusing on local or regional water storage, the stored water at Semitropic Water Storage Bank is near Bakersfield, hundreds of miles away from us. This water is critical because the Santa Clara Valley district depends on the Semitropic water for 25 percent of its treated water," he said.

But Schmidt said that assertion is misleading, saying that in the majority of years, 5 percent or less of the district's water supply comes from the groundwater bank.

"When we established the Semitropic account 20 years ago, we knew there were limitations on its availability but that it was still valuable. For example, we withdrew quite a bit of that water last year and transferred it to local storage as part of general preparations for scarcity," Schmidt said.

Barring some disaster, the district will get the Semitropic water in November, Schmidt said.

If elected, Kremen would focus on additional stormwater capture with groundwater percolation, regional recycling and reuse, recharging groundwater basins and desalination, he said.

He added that he would also focus on eliminating fiscal waste and abuse within the district, especially holding board members and the CEO accountable.

Related content:

Huge campaign-funding discrepancy in water board race

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9 people like this
Posted by hmmm
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 10, 2014 at 10:39 am

Frankly I personally have a big issue with a water board candidate also being an investor in a water meter company, as Mr Kremen is. Big conflict in interest in my opinion.

5 people like this
Posted by FixTheCreek
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 11, 2014 at 2:13 pm

FixTheCreek is a registered user.

My two issues are creek flooding and this tax. Brian Schmidt is a nice but we do need to twist arms to get the creek fixed. He has been unable to get the water district to pressure the state water board to fix the creek. Pope Chaucer should have been fixed a long time ago

With respect to the tax, while we live in Palo Alto we should not have to pay taxes for water we do not get.

So what if someone spends their own money on a campaign - it shows commitment.

Like this comment
Posted by fish hugger
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Oct 13, 2014 at 5:37 pm

fish hugger is a registered user.

I’d rather have a SCVWD board member that pushes for intelligently prepared projects rather than a politico that forces decisions with horsetrades and arm-wrestling. These projects will forever change our waterways. Not long ago dams and concrete channels were thought to be best practices for water management. Let’s do things right and keep Brian Schmidt at the helm.

Like this comment
Posted by FixTheCreek
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 14, 2014 at 12:05 am

FixTheCreek is a registered user.

Ffish hugger, you sound like the Complete the Refuge folks that are getting in the way of fixing the creek from flooding. You have the right to hug a fish, but not to the extent my house gets flooded again as well as Duveneck School. Does Los Altos Hill flood? I think not. The reality is we need to fix the creek so that our houses do not flood like 1998 and almost like 2012.

We need a SCVWD board member who makes fixing the creek priority number #1, not that puts fish hugging as #1.

Like this comment
Posted by Guy_Fawkes
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 14, 2014 at 9:58 am

Guy_Fawkes is a registered user.

Anyone who flaunts our laws about NOT posting political signs on public land loses my vote. I'd like to see a $500 littering fine per occurence.

Throw in the obvious finance conflict that "hmmmm" points out that Kreman has with investment in water tech company, and that's strike two.

Finally, there is a question of judgement - anyone that spends so excessively on a water district race has questionable judgement and gets a strike three for not understanding the negative perception that creates.

Like this comment
Posted by FixTheCreek
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 16, 2014 at 9:34 pm

FixTheCreek is a registered user.

How about not focus on signs but on water (floods and droughts). I want the creek fixed so I do not have floods.

So what if someone has an investment in a water tech company. That is not illegal and it gives on perspective. All it has to be is disclosed and recusing oneself.

That happened when I was on the planning. You could not vote if you owned property that was not your house.

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

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