Responding to a rising tide of citizen concern, Palo Alto officials on Monday took aim at the controversial practice of "dewatering," and approved new rules for property owners who wish to pump groundwater so that they can build basements.
The practice of dewatering has become more visible and controversial over the past year as the number of basement projects has risen (there were 14 such projects in 2015, mostly in parts of Old Palo Alto that are above what is known as the city's "shallow aquifer") and as the statewide drought enters its fourth year.
The two concurrent trends have given rise to a new grassroots group, Save Palo Alto's Groundwater, which has been lobbying the City Council to curtail the practice of dewatering and to treat groundwater as a precious natural resource, rather than a byproduct of construction.
The grassroots group scored its first major victory Monday night when the council approved a set of actions aimed at educating residents about groundwater, accommodating residents who want to use the discharged water, and ensuring that new projects that require dewatering adequately consider impacts on surrounding properties.
The most significant new rule is a requirement that applicants submit a statement of effects of the groundwater pumping on nearby buildings, infrastructure, trees and landscaping. This requirement will take effect this spring, when groundwater pumping season begins (the practice is restricted between October and April).
Other changes include new requirements for fill stations, which are already required to be established as part of basement projects that require dewatering. The stations allow the non-potable groundwater that would otherwise go into the city's storm drains to be recaptured and used for other means, including construction cleanup and irrigation. These stations would now have to be able to offer sufficient water pressure to accommodate multiple users.
The council voted 7-2, with Councilwoman Karen Holman and Councilman Greg Schmid dissenting, to adopt the new rules, which council members acknowledged were only the first of a series of actions that they plan to take on this topic in the coming months.
Though everyone agreed that the new restrictions would be appropriate, both Holman and Schmid argued that the proposal doesn't go far enough. Schmid recommended specific policies about metering and proposed a 6-million-gallon threshold for groundwater pumping before contractors have to adopt mitigating measures (His colleagues decided against setting a specific limit). Holman argued that the proposals do not constitute adequate mitigations.
The actions were, in many ways, a compromise. Some members of the citizens group had lobbied the council to adopt a moratorium on groundwater pumping until the city has a better grasp of the issue and its environmental implications. Others questioned whether these restrictions are needed at all.
Local architect Dan Garber observed that the pump at the Oregon Expressway underpass discharges more water annually than all of the residential projects combined.
City staff acknowledged that the issue needs more analysis. To that effect, city officials are working with the Santa Clara County Water District to better understand the North County's groundwater systems, impacts of groundwater pumping and opportunities for recharging the groundwater. But most members agreed that the new regulations, which were vetted and unanimously approved by the council's Policy and Services Committee in December, are a promising start.
Phil Bobel, assistant director of Public Works, said the new requirement would require a contractor to identify the effects that the project would have on nearby properties and include "avoidance measures" to minimize the effects. Even if no impacts are identified, the applicant would need to implement measures that would minimize the rate and duration of pumping.
Before the vote, several members of the new citizens group urged the council to do its part to curtail what it sees as a massive waste of water. Rita Vrhel, a resident of Crescent Park, told the council that the topic "is not going away."
"We are faced with droughts and flooding in our future," Vrhel said. "The only choice is when this will be adequately addressed."
The group also submitted a detailed white paper on the topic that analyzed the level of water being pumped, considered the effects of the practice and criticized the city's prior studies on the topic, the most recent of which was commissioned about a decade ago.
"The nearly 300% increase in approved dewatering permits and over 100 million gallons of groundwater extracted during the 2015 do not appear to have been anticipated by the authors of the City's existing dewatering policies and regulations," the paper reads. "Current dewatering regulations do not accurately address localized impacts of dewatering, including, but not limited to: potential ground settling; reduced soil moisture for trees and vegetation; public compensation for the private use of community groundwater; potential impacts on public and private water supplies; and necessary changes in public policy in an era of climate change.
"Additionally, the longer-term and cumulative impacts of basements on aquifer flows and storm water drainage are ignored."
The council agreed to further explore in the coming months more dramatic ideas for curtailing dewatering, including charging property owners for the discharge of water; tailoring dewatering requirements to drought conditions; and making sure that numerous pumping projects do not happen concurrently in close proximity. Staff will return to the council later in the year with more analysis of these actions.
But the council majority generally lauded the additional rules, which City Manager James Keene characterized as an "intermediate step."
"You don't score a touchdown from (your own) 10-yard line," Keene said. "We're trying to move forward a little bit."
Vice Mayor Greg Scharff, who made the motion to support the staff recommendation, called the proposed changes a "measured and appropriate response."
"What this does is take this on as a pilot program and says, "Let's measure the groundwater, gain more data, and let's put some things in place to address some of the immediate concerns that the public has,'" Scharff said.
Councilman Tom DuBois called the action an "important step" and said the greater challenge will be figuring out how to put a price on a commodity that has traditionally been treated like construction waste. DuBois also joined several other council members, including Scharff and Liz Kniss, in thanking the citizens group for taking the lead on the issue.
"This is a great example of the public process and you've certainly gotten the attention of us and, I think, the entire community," Kniss said.