Palo Alto eyes new ways to manage storm water

As city moves ahead with election to raise storm-water fees, focus shifts to green infrastructure

For decades, Palo Alto's storm drains have functioned like hidden highways, ferrying water away from local streets and into the Bay.

Built for the most part half a century ago, it shows its age. According to a report from Public Works, it was built "in a poorly coordinated manner as part of multiple individual residential subdivision developments during the high growth years between the mid-1940s and late 1960s."

Many of its elements, according to staff, fail to meet the modern design standards of being able to convey a storm runoff from a 10-year storm without flooding the streets.

Now, as Palo Alto moves ahead with a major effort to upgrade the system, city officials aren't just looking to install new pumps and dig new drains. They are also looking to transform the city's traditional way of looking at storm water.

Traditionally viewed as a hazard and a nuisance, it will now be seen as valuable commodity that integrate into -- and enhance -- local ecosystems. Once dumped, rain water will now be harvested.

"It's the whole new way of looking at storm water as more of an asset rather than something to get rid of," said Joe Teresi, senior engineer at Public Works. "The basic concept in green storm-water infrastructure management is to infiltrate water and treat it as once was done when the environment was in natural state."

Lauded by city staff as a "paradigm shift," the new approach was heartily endorsed by the City Council on Monday night, when council members agreed to pursue a ballot-by-mail election next year to raise fees for storm-drain improvements.

In moving ahead with the January 2017 election, the council enthusiastically backed a list of recommendations from the city's Storm Drain Blue Ribbon Committee, a 10-member group that has been meeting earlier this year to discuss improvements to the existing system. Over the course of their discussions, committee members agreed that the system needs more than just an investment; it also needs a new funding structure and a more holistic approach toward storm water.

Among the committee's recommendations was changing the name of the fund (and the fees) that pays for storm-drain improvements. "Storm Drain Fees" will now be known as "Storm Management Fees" to reflect the change. As Claire Elliott, co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Committee, explained to the council on Monday: "'Storm drainage' implies that it's something we're going to dispose of and get rid off; 'storm management' takes into consideration that it might be a resource as well."

The committee also recommended that the $13.65 fee be split into two fees: a maintenance fee of $6.62 per month per property (or "equivalent residential unit"), which would remain constant and permanent. The remaining fee of $7.03 per month would expire after 15 years. It would be used to fund capital improvement projects, incentive programs and green storm-water infrastructure.

Under the proposal approved this week, the council will also have the ability to increase the fee by 6 percent per year or to correspond with the change in the Consumer Price Index (whichever amount is less). If property owners approve the fees, they would take effect on June 1, 2017, when the current fees (which voters approved in 2005) expire.

Elliott and her committee colleagues (Norm Beamer, David Bower, Nancy Clark, Peter Drekmeier, Susan Rosenberg, Bob Wenzlau, Stepheny McGraw, Hal Mickelson and Richard Whaley) also recommended a list of 16 projects that would be funded by the roughly $27.2 million that would be raised for capital improvements.

The most expensive items on the list are capacity improvements along Louis Road (from Embarcadero to the Seale-Wooster Canal) in Midtown and to Hamilton Avenue (between Center and Rhodes drives) in the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood. Other items include storm-drain upgrades along West Bayshore Road (in Palo Verde), at East Meadow Circle and along East Charleston Road.

The new projects will build on the storm-water improvements that the city had been implementing over the past decade, particularly after property owners approved in 2005 a storm-drain fee to fund seven infrastructure projects. These included a pump station near the San Francisquito Creek and storm-drain improvements along Alma Street and Clara Drive.

If the new fees are not approved, residents' storm-water bills would drop to the pre-election level of $4.25 per month. According to Public Works, this rate "will not support current operational costs for storm-drain system maintenance and state-mandated storm-water quality protection programs, and will provide no funding for continuation of a storm-drain capital improvement program."

In approving the election, council members pointed out that the increase in bills would be nominal. Currently, property owners pay about $13.03 (a combination of the voter-approved $10 fee and inflationary increases).

Vice Mayor Greg Scharff praised the plan to split off the fees into maintenance and capital categories and called the committee's recommendations "thoughtful."

"This way we have a sustainable and clear process to fund things going into the future," he said.

Council members also lauded the philosophical shift on storm water. Mayor Pat Burt, who represents the city on the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, noted that when a major storm happens, the runoff from the city's storm-drain system converges with water from local creeks near U.S. Highway 101. At a certain point, the level of water goes beyond what the gated system can accommodate, prompting water to back up onto streets.

"There is no solution other than having less storm water," Burt said.

Burt lauded the shift from the old "hardscape" system in which storm water is piped away and discharged to the Bay to a new one in which the water is returned to the natural environment. He called this "a big transformation."

"It's not just our storm water, it's about how it helps us complement our creek flood-control program and how it basically adds to a sustainable approach," he said.

The shift toward harvesting, rather than dumping, rain water has already started to take place. The most recent example is in the Southgate neighborhood, where the city has installed bioretention planters, which collect runoff from nearby paved areas and permeable crosswalks. The project, which was funded by the 2005 ballot measure, cost $2 million and was completed in 2014.

Other projects that fit under the umbrella of "green storm-water infrastructure" include rain gardens, tree wells and green roofs. The report from the Blue Ribbon Committee states that such infrastructure projects offer amenities "with many benefits beyond water-quality improvement and groundwater replenishment, including creation of attractive tree-lined streetscapes, wildlife habitat, reduction of heat island effect, bicycle and pedestrian accessibility and enhanced public health."

"There's a lot of ways that green infrastructure can be incorporated and we hope every time the city does an improvement project of some sort that they look for opportunities to incorporate it so it's part of the thought process for everything we're doing whenever possible," Elliott told the council.


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12 people like this
Posted by Save Palo Alto's Groundwater
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 30, 2016 at 10:55 am

Also included in the Blue Ribbon and City Staff Recommendation is a proposal to charge a fee to users of the storm drains for water other than storm runoff, with a point-discharge fee. Several Council members expressed their support for this fee.

Those discharging groundwater pumped for basement construction are the largest users of the storm drain system, and presently they pay no additional fees. In 2015, City estimates show that construction dewatering put as nearly much water into the storm drains as runoff from all city streets COMBINED (approximately 150 million gallons, or 20 million cubic feet).

The city now requires measurement of the groundwater pumped for basement construction. For the first site measured, the amount of water pumped was measured at 30.58 million gallons (4 million cubic feet). It's enough water to cover a 2,000 x 2,000 foot area 1 foot deep in water.

30+ Million Gallons, One Project, Read the meter
Web Link

34 people like this
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 30, 2016 at 11:08 am

This is just another way to justify increasing the storm water tax in the upcoming ballot.
This is a normal General Fund Infrastructure cost and should be looked at in that way.
No new taxes.

16 people like this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 30, 2016 at 11:50 am

Mountain View solved the basement problem, they count the basement floor area in total floor area. No basement loop hole...

8 people like this
Posted by nat
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 30, 2016 at 12:31 pm

I wish more info was given about the management plans. For instance, what are bioretention planters?

This article doesn't give enough details to help decide how to vote.

27 people like this
Posted by PV Resident
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 30, 2016 at 1:36 pm

We have just received notification that our street will be repaved shortly. I suppose there is no hope that the work on the storm drains will be done before the repaving.

As soon as we saw the notification, we guessed that very soon after the street would be dug up for something.

Can the right hand please let the left hand know what is being planned.

26 people like this
Posted by Tax Basements
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2016 at 1:49 pm

Some of the basements being dug are 2 or even 3 stories deep, and being used as living and sleeping areas. One I saw recently had 2 bedrooms, 2 baths, a living room, a fireplace, and a small kitchen! The level below it was a temperature controlled wine cellar of magnanimous proportions!

An unfinished basement for storage or laundry is one thing, but a finished, heated, air conditioned, plumbed basement that is obviously for family use is just cheating the system.

This needs to be done county-wide, if not state-wide!

8 people like this
Posted by Sean
a resident of Ventura
on Jun 30, 2016 at 1:56 pm

The tax is too high, with the potential for 6% increases, part is locked in forever, part is locked in for 15 years. It's just too much.

I also wonder what will happen with harvested water surpluses. Are we going to be charged to access and use some of that water? Will the city give it away to residents? Will the city give it away to all comers from other cities?

I agree with the idea, but senor blogger's comments ring true for me. I won't support this tax.

7 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 30, 2016 at 3:36 pm

Marie is a registered user.

6% is too high. I think any cola's should be tied to the COLA used for social security which has not increased in 3 out of the last 5 years. Our utilities are going up far higher than any cost of living index.

And I still don't have anywhere to pump water that comes into my crawl space, as it does almost every winter, even though the storm drains were upgraded on Alma. The new upgrades were all on the side near the train, not solving any issues for the residents. If i just pump it out to my small backyard, it simply drains into my neighbor's yard.

13 people like this
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 30, 2016 at 5:28 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

Every time the city raises utility FEES, they give themselves an automatic 6% UUT raise.

Put Cisterns all over the city that can be used for Fire fighting or Irrigation (landowner supplies their own pumps to use for irrigation. City to be responsible for routine sediment removal). Excess water cascades into the next downstream cistern. Why throw this (grey) water away?

3 people like this
Posted by AReader
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 30, 2016 at 10:04 pm

@Sean, @Marie, @SteveU et al -- Please read the article carefully: 6% is the UPPER LIMIT on the annual increase which would be based on the CPI and which was, from 2010 to 2015: 1.5%, 3.0%, 1.7% 1.5%, 0.8%, 0.7%

The last time there was a CPI increase of over 6% was 1978-1981 (9.0%, 13.3%, 12.5%, 8.9%).

We're currently paying $13.03/mo. The proposal is to increase this to $13.65/mo. You're getting upset about a grand total of $7.44/year???

9 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 1, 2016 at 7:29 am

Part of the problem here is that there are not universal signs throughout the city concerning notification for street cleaning days and no parking on the streets in the area on those days. We have continual tree droppings now in the street which gets worse when all of the leaves drop in the fall. Cars on the street block the street cleaner and all of that gets washed down into the drains blocking them. We have the large drains at either end of the street where leaves mound up now and in the winter. It is a continual mess.
So Palo Alto - get those street signs concerning street cleaning so we can reduce the amount of trash that is going down the drain.
And note that the residences next to those drains are oblivious to what is going on in front of the house. They think someone else is suppose to do that.

5 people like this
Posted by Paly Grad
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jul 3, 2016 at 8:50 pm

A new house in the 700 block of Moreno is being built with a basement. The ground water is being pumped into a nearby storm drain.

5 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 4, 2016 at 9:14 am

When it rains hard in Palo Alto, we have many places where the drains block up and cause street flooding. This is due to the fact that street sweeping is ineffective due to the fact that there are always certain spots on certain streets where there are always cars blocking the street sweepers from sweeping away leaves and debris. We also have - in some cases the same home owners - who continually sweep or blow their leaves into the gutters to cause blockages which prevents the rainwater runoff from reaching the drains.

With or without this work being done on the storm drains, we need to be much more proactive in getting the streets cleared of debris so that the stormdrains can do what they are supposed to do.

Like this comment
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 7, 2016 at 11:40 am

I feel this stormwater management thing is just an excuse to collect money
to give special jobs to some well-connected people so they can experiment
with different ways Palo Alto can say it is Green. It's like a politically correct
image PR thing.

What we really need is ways of getting water off the streets and out to the
bay. We have a ton of places we can store that diverted water. Go out to
Byxbee Park and the baylands and there are huge places where water is
directed. Can't these be used as reservoirs to hold water?

Once we are safe from flooding, then someone can go and implement nice
green bioretention planters where their EXPERIMENTAL performance can be
tracked and evaluated - because we do not really know if these work or not,
but someone is going around putting them in as a solution to the flooding
problem ... is it ???? prove it !!!

I am all for new technology, once it is proven and well understood, but first
solve the real problem before you go off on unproven technology that may
or may not be implemented competently and effectively.

-- and ---

Please, enough with the dewatering complaints already. This is how people
must build houses with basements, it is a legitimate one time thing to do.

Like this comment
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 7, 2016 at 11:45 am

Resident - This is due to the fact that street sweeping is ineffective due to
- the fact that there are always certain spots on certain streets where there
- are always cars blocking the street sweepers from sweeping away leaves
- and debris.

Can you be more specific?

I'm curious, what certain spots have enough visible debris that it will block
the gutters during a big rain? Not that I doubt you, I've just never seen
major debris in Palo Alto streets, but I don't travel all of Palo Alto's streets.

I know when we get a big rain the area around Chaucer down to the bridge
will back up, but I don't think that has anything to do with gutters and
debris, the creek is just too high. Are you talking about something else,
and if so what and where?

1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 7, 2016 at 1:31 pm

The debris I am talking about is mainly the leaves and small branches that fall and cannot be moved by sweepers due to parked cars. The storm drain entrances are blocked by weeks of leaf and tree fall off that form hard barriers across the entrances to the drains when left undisturbed.

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 7, 2016 at 7:53 pm

Anyone can drive down Louis Road or Ross Road which have major sewer drains at periodic places along the roads. The type of trees that are planted makes a difference. Right now some of the trees are dropping seed pods. In the fall there will be a major leaf drop.

We have another problem in that employees of organizations on Fabian use these streets as their "parking places" like their names are on their spaces. They are there every day for the full day. They are parking under the main messy trees so that those locations do not get cleaned up. The parking is on the side streets entering Louis Road.
Crescent Park has a volume of trees but there are resident parking stickers here so different set of problems. Also signs that indicate no parking on street sweeper days. Those signs need to be universal throughout the city.

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

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