Hundreds of units of affordable housing and millions of square feet of commercial construction in East Palo Alto cannot be developed because the city doesn't have enough water, according to city leaders.
East Palo Alto has been allotted 1.96 million gallons per day by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), which supplies water to local municipalities, but the city could use another 1.5 million gallons per day, city officials say.
East Palo Alto's water consumption per person is already the lowest of any of the utility's 26 wholesale water customers -- 57 gallons per day, according to a 2013-2014 survey by the Bay Area Water Supply & Conservation Agency (BAWSCA). The nearby affluent city of Hillsborough consumes five times that amount -- 302 gallons per capita per day.
To remedy the situation, East Palo Alto officials on Tuesday, June 14, asked the commission to allocate another 1.5 million gallons per day to the city's guaranteed water supply.
In addition, city leaders are asking the commission and BAWSCA, whose members are the utility's wholesale customers, to create ways and incentives for the cities that are not using their full water allotments to transfer some to East Palo Alto and other cities that are facing increased demands.
Without additional water, East Palo Alto must put off major projects that would create affordable housing and thousands of jobs, proponents for the increased allocation told commissioners Tuesday. The city's general plan calls for 2,519 additional residential units; 333,406 square feet of additional retail; 1.9 million square feet of additional office space; and 267,987 square feet of additional industrial space by 2035.
Current proposed projects on hold include 120 units of affordable housing on city-owned land at 965 Weeks St.; a new private school funded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, for up to 500 students that includes health care and other services; a 200,000-square-foot office project at 2111 University Ave. that could create 650 new jobs; and a 1.4 million-square-foot office project at 2020 Bay Road, the former Romic chemical plant location, that could provide up to 4,500 new jobs, according to a city manager's report.
East Palo Alto has exceeded its Hetch Hetchy allotment four times in the last 14 years, most recently in 2012, according to a city staff report. And that doesn't even factor in the future water needs of three major projects already underway: Edenbridge Homes, with 166 new residential units; the 215,000-square-foot Sobrato office project; and the 4 Corners mixed-use project.
East Palo Alto's water woes were set in motion decades ago when little attention went into planning for future growth by San Mateo County agencies. The city incorporated in 1982, but it was served by the county-run water district, which included Belle Haven in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto.
The water requests were handled by the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors until that time, said Steven Ritchie, assistant general manager of the SFPUC Water Enterprise, which is responsible for overseeing water system operations and planning from Hetch Hetchy through the Regional Water System.
In 2001 East Palo Alto lost a share of its water to Menlo Park in when the East Palo Alto County Waterworks District dissolved. Today, in addition to the Hetch Hetchy allotment, several hundred East Palo Alto residents and small businesses get water from underground wells.
City Councilwoman Lisa Gauthier petitioned the commission to consider that East Palo Alto can play a major role in providing affordable housing for the region, but only if it gets more water.
About 40 percent of the city's current housing stock is affordable. The city is willing to take on more affordable housing, Gauthier said.
An increased water allocation factors heavily into economic equity issues, Gauthier said. She noted that at 0.23 jobs per resident, East Palo Alto has the lowest jobs-per-capita ratio in the county, an unemployment rate that is twice the county average. More water could enable more development of businesses, which would create more work for local residents.
Other speakers joined Gauthier in advocating for the city to receive more water.
"The City of East Palo Alto is in a tough position. ... Basic needs can't be provided," said Brian Perkins, district director for U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier's office. "The choice is often between paying high rents or paying for food or medical care. That's not acceptable. ... The most essential service is readily available (elsewhere in the Bay Area), but not in East Palo Alto, and that's water."
East Palo Alto also faces pressures with Facebook on its border. The social-media giant's workforce has exploded, and it is giving $10,000 bonuses to employees to live within 10 miles of its campus. East Palo Alto residents, whose annual median income is $52,000, can't compete with a Facebook bonus that is 20 percent of their salaries, Perkins said. The additional water would allow the city to create economic opportunity and diverse housing that can be spread broadly across the community, proponents said.
Maeve Johnston, community health planner for the San Mateo County Health System, said the lack of water is also a public health issue for East Palo Alto residents. The high price of housing forces many residents to live in basements, where they are exposed to pests and mold, or to double or triple up in cramped quarters, increasing stress and exposure to communicable diseases -- problems that cannot be solved without more housing and the water to support it.
Nicole Sandkulla, BAWSCA CEO and general manager, said the agency supports the additional 1.5-million-gallon-per-day allocation for East Palo Alto. She also urged the commission to speed up the process for East Palo Alto and not to wait until 2018 to approve additional allocation guarantees.
The commissioners are not scheduled to add allocations until 2018, which would include considering whether to make the cities of San Jose and Santa Clara permanent customers. Currently, both cities have temporary status and are not guaranteed minimum water allocations, but they are seeking permanent status and increased water allocations, which could be granted as early as 2018.
Ritchie said it would not be detrimental for cities to transfer some of the allocations to East Palo Alto. The commission's allotments to permanent wholesale members total 184 million gallons per day, but that level has not been reached and it is not expected to reach close to capacity until at least 2040, when demand is projected at 177.8 million gallons per day, including requests from San Jose and Santa Clara, Ritchie said.
Many cities are going to use less than their allotments due to successful conservation efforts, water reuse and other technologies. Palo Alto has a 17.08-million-gallons-per-day allocation, but the city actually only purchased 9.68 million gallons per day last year, including 0.11 million gallons to Stanford Hospital, according to commission's 2015 Urban Water Management Plan for the City and County of San Francisco. Mountain View has 13.46 million gallons per day, but it purchased only 7.61 million gallons supply assurance.
But Ritchie acknowledged that many cities might be anxious to give up water they might need for future development. Financial incentives might encourage sharing.
"If demands don't bounce back, they will still have to pay minimum purchase requirements," he said. East Palo Alto would take on that purchase cost if it takes on the additional allocations, he said.
The commission did not vote on the topic, but board Vice President Anson Moran said it would probably be an uphill battle to get cities to give up their water allotments, although contractually it would be the easiest way to obtain the needed water supply.
In the longer term, additional water supplies will have to be created for all of the customers. He suggested that staff create priority lists for how future goals can be met. That would include conservation and reclamation. In addition to East Palo Alto, Purissima Hills Water District, San Jose and Santa Clara are asking for greater allotments.
Other potential water supplies the commissioners might look at include additional water diversion from the Tuolumne River, regional desalination, desalination of brackish groundwater and the use of nonpotable groundwater for irrigation, he said.
East Palo Alto has two other potential groundwater sources, but they are not expected to be enough for its demand and are not reliable. The Gloria Bay Well, which is not in production, has high concentrations of manganese. The city is working with a consultant to design a treatment system to filter out the excessive manganese so the water can be used.
Another site on a triangle of property at East Bayshore Road and Clarke Avenue, known as Pad D, is another potential source, but the well there has not yet been dug. Both sources would help the city establish emergency water supplies, city officials have said.
Gauthier said she was encouraged by the commission's response and observed that commissioners seemed to understand that the city needs the water now. She reiterated that it comes down to an equity issue. With so much hanging in the balance for the city in terms of jobs, housing and educational opportunities, she said that she hopes the city can work with other water customers to develop a solution to East Palo Alto's dilemma.
"Everybody knows the urgency. It's not like we can wait a year or until 2018," she said.