When English poet Samuel Coleridge penned his famous line, "Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink," he could have been talking about Palo Alto.
With the start of construction season, thousands of gallons of water have been gushing along city streets this month, the byproduct of basement-excavation projects.
And that's not sitting well with folks who are dutifully taking shorter showers and letting their lawns die of thirst.
"Here we are carrying buckets to our plants and redoing yards and this guy is pouring oceans into the bay from our aquifer," resident Carol Hubenthal wrote to the Weekly, after biking by a property on Webster Street where a basement is being built.
In fact, the outcry has reached such a pitch that City Hall on Monday released an FAQ about groundwater pumping.
"During this time of severe drought, our community is working hard to conserve water. So, when a number of community members observed water pumping from construction sites they wanted to know what is happening," the FAQ states before going on to acknowledge the discharge of water from construction sites into local storm drains.
In the city's defense, officials say, the water is not being lost so much as going to the Bay, where it would have ended up anyway.
"The shallow water aquifer being pumped contributes to the flow of our creeks and to the Bay," the FAQ states. "When the shallow aquifer is pumped from basement construction sites into storm drains, it travels a different path, but ends up in the same place: the lower South Bay. So, the water ... is used to improve the Bay's habitat and ecosystem, whichever pathway it takes."
While that may not satisfy those who are saving water by the pailful, there is a silver lining: This year, the city instituted a requirement that the pumped water be captured and reused, if possible, according to Mike Nafziger, senior engineer with the Public Works department.
"It's a condition of approval now that the city's requiring," said Nafziger, who launched the program last year as a test. "I've always hated that water going to waste. With the drought, it's even more important (to reuse it)."
For any project lowering the water table temporarily, wells must pump the water to tanks, where the sediment settles out, and a pipe or pump then directs the cleaned water to the edge of the site, he explained.
From there, it's up to city crews or others who want the water to take it away. City workers who water trees, sweep the streets and tamp down dust at the landfill are all encouraged to fill their tanks.
Nafziger said the city has spread the word to Stanford University to encourage contractors there to likewise use the extracted water to control dust.
"We're broadcasting that to as many folks as we can," he told the Weekly.
Such "fill-stations" are in place at all three of Palo Alto's active basement construction pumping sites: 1405 Harker Ave., 2133 Webster St. and 1934 Waverley St.
Even neighbors of the properties are welcome to the water; a faucet has been hooked up for the purpose at at least one of three sites where water is being pumped. Because the water is non-potable, however, it's not to be used for drinking water.
Admittedly, officials say, the amount of water being reused is only a fraction of what's being pumped, which can range from 30 to 50 gallons a minute, according to a 2008 staff report.
Still, residents need not worry about harm to the deeper Palo Alto aquifer, which provides emergency drinking water. That is separate from the shallow aquifer affected by basement construction, the FAQ states.
To respond to ongoing concerns about water use, the city has hired a part-time water-waste coordinator. Residents who see water being wasted can contact Martin Ricci at 650-496-6968 or email [email protected] to report leaks or other water waste.
Problems can also be reported through the City's PaloAlto311 mobile app or cityofpaloalto.org/water.
A discussion of the topic has been ongoing on Town Square, the community discussion forum at PaloAltoOnline.com/square.