Nearly three decades after Palo Alto began using recycled water to irrigate the golf course and a portion of Mountain View, the city is considering expanding the practice to the lush corporate campuses of Stanford Research Park.
The new project is a revival of an old one that was shelved in 2008 after an analysis found the $33.5 million to be cost-prohibitive. Now, with the state mired in the fourth year of a severe drought, the cost of potable water on a rapid rise, and new pools of grant funding available for recycled-water projects, the calculations have changed. City staff have recently completed an environmental analysis for the project and the Utilities Advisory Commission was preparing to discuss and possibly approve the project on Wednesday night.
Yet hopes of a swift endorsement ebbed early in the discussion, after a citizen watchdog raised the prospect of a conflict of interest for one commissioner, who works at Stanford. In an unusual twist, Commissioner Steve Eglash, agreed to step down from the discussion shortly after Public Works staff concluded its presentation and the citizen, Herb Borock, made his comment.
The issue was particularly pertinent because the seven-member commission had only four members present. Eglash's recusal reduced the roster to three, leaving it one short of a quorum (Commissioners James Cook and Garth Hall were both absent, while recently appointed commissioner Lisa Van Dusen has resigned). Under the Brown Act, which governs how meetings are run, a meeting is required to have a "majority of the members of a legislative body at the same time and place."
"If you have a conflict of interest, you only have three commissioners here and you don't have a quorum and you can't do business," Borock told the commission.
Borock's comment, and the city attorney's advice that the meeting be postponed to a later date, touched off an testy exchange between the commissioners and staff.
Eglash, a technologist and former venture capitalist with expertise in renewable energy, currently manages several programs at Stanford, including the Stanford Data Science Initiative and the Artificial Intelligence Lab. After Borock made his comment, Eglash immediately agreed to step down, citing Borock's concern and saying that he has no wish to "contaminate the discussion with my presence, comments and vote."
He also said that he had considered the issue before the meeting and had reached an opinion that the conflict in his case was "minimal."
"I'm one employee who is not associated directly in any way with Stanford's use of water or the Research Park's use of water," Eglash said during the meeting after hearing Borock's comment. "I'm one employee in an organization."
Cara Silver, senior assistant city attorney, concurred with Borock that the city's decision on the recycled-water project would have a "pretty significant economic impact on Stanford," which owns the Research Park where the new pipelines would be installed.
"They will be one of the users of this project," Silver said.
While Eglash opted to recuse rather than argue with the city attorney, his commission colleagues were less than pleased. Before Silver could finish elaborating, she was interrupted by shaking heads and interjections from Commission Chair Jonathan Foster and Commissioner Michael Danaher, each of whom argued against Eglash's recusal.
"I think it is absurd," Foster said.
Danaher was even more vehement in his dissent and urged Silver not to "reach your conclusion yet." The attorney's opinion, he said, was issued "without a lot of explanation or a lot of factual background." He also called the attorney's advice that the meeting be continued at a later date "unduly conservative" and wondered aloud whether there is really anyone on the commission who is truly without any conflicts.
"Do I have an economic interest because the pipeline might go by my house?" Danaher asked.
After that discussion was halted by staff because of a lack of quorum, Foster requested that he and Danaher be provided a written explanation of why Eglash had to recuse himself.
The issue of Stanford-related conflicts is far from new in Palo Alto. Earlier this year, City Councilman Tom DuBois had to recuse himself from a discussion of an annual cap on new office development around downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real because his wife is employed by Stanford.
With his absence, the council split 4-4 on several key components of the proposed ordinance, which remains unadopted. In June, the council directed staff and the city's Sacramento lobbyists to look for opportunities to change the conflict-of-interest rules governed by the Political Reform Act so that they would only apply to situations where a city official would see a material benefit from the policy change.
Past council members, including former mayors Larry Klein and Yiaway Yeh, likewise left the Council Chambers anytime a subject involving Stanford popped up because their wives were affiliated with the university.
Once staff determined that the Wednesday meeting cannot continue, a clearly flustered commission spent a few minutes debating its next move. Utilities Director Valerie Fong noted that the commission's September meeting is already full of complex items, including the proposed fiber-to-the-premise network and the city's new master plan for sustainability and climate protection. She said she will consult with Public Works and consider the most suitable meeting for continuing the discussion.
Fong also made a request of the commission: "Wouldn't it be nice if there's discipline, and we made it through items in efficient fashion without grandstanding?"
"We do not do any grandstanding here and all commissioner comments are of value," Foster replied.
The abrupt ending to Wednesday's discussion of the recycled-water project belied staff's growing optimism about the proposed expansion. Karin North, watershed protection manager with the Public Works Department, said staff's goal is to get the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) approved as soon as possible so that it can then pursue possible grant funding for the new components of the recycled-water system.
The city began using recycled water from its Wastewater Treatment Plant for irrigation in the early 1980s, when it delivered the water to the municipal golf course. In the second phase, the pipelines were extended to Mountain View.
By expanding the use of recycled water even more, the city looks to conserve more drinking water, secure a drought-proof water supply and reduce the city's reliance on imported water, according to North. It would also be nice, she said, to reduce the amount of recycled water that the city dumps into the Bay.
The city's supply of recycled water greatly exceeds what it's used for at this point in time, North said.
The project is focused on Stanford Research Park because the area includes the largest concentration of customers with irrigation needs. The proposal initially faced some resistance from Stanford and the local nonprofit Canopy because of concerns that the high salt level in the recycled water would harm trees, particularly redwoods.
The new EIR, which the city revived earlier this year, proposes several measures to address these concerns. These include exempting redwood trees from new recycled-water requirements; blending recycled water with water that has lower salinity; and using a purification process such as reverse or forward osmosis to reduce salt levels. North said staff had talked to Canopy staff and Stanford about these proposals, and everyone generally agreed that these solutions would work well.
Before Borock's comment changed the direction of the discussion, Commissioner Judith Schwartz said she is "very excited" about this project. People in the community, she said, want to see the city be creative in this arena.
"The time is now," Schwartz said. "People want to see the investment because it's important."
Mark Harris, a former director of utilities for the City of Mountain View, said he has been talking with Palo Alto officials nearly two decades ago about expanding the use of recycled water. He said he "can't support the project enough."
"I wish it happened earlier. I understand why it hasn't," Harris said. "I think the new technologies, some of the new financial issues around it, and the clear and obvious drought cycle that we have have finally brought this to a critical mass."