Plan to raise storm-drain fees flows forth in Palo Alto

City Council approves mail-only election in 2017

A proposal in Palo Alto to raise storm-drain fees and create a new structure for funding future improvements advanced this week, when the City Council formally approved a staff plan for a mail-only election.

If voters approve the change, the city would adopt a monthly fee of $13.65 for a typical home (known as an equivalent-residential unit), slightly higher than the existing fee of $13.03, which was approved by the voters in 2005 and is set to expire next year.

The new fee also comes with a new structure. Unlike today, the $13.65 fee would consist of a "base component" of $7.48 that would pay for on-going maintenance of the city's storm-drain system and would remain in perpetuity.

The remaining $6.17 would be a "projects and infrastructure component" that would pay for specific capital projects. Collectively, these fees are projected to generate about $6.9 million annually for the storm-drain program.

The council on Monday unanimously approved moving ahead with the mail-only election, a vote that was consistent with its prior support for raising the storm-drain fees. The only change between the new proposal and the one that was presented to the council in June is in the way the fee is split up.

Initially, staff and the specially appointed Storm Drain Blue Ribbon Committee recommended a more even split between the fee's operating and capital components (with $6.62 and $7.03 devoted toward each, respectively). Since then, the share going to the operating costs has gone up and the share going to capital has gone down, so that the operating component is now larger than the capital one.

Several council members, including Greg Schmid and Vice Mayor Greg Scharff said they were concerned about the recent tilt toward more spending on staffing and maintenance, which Schmid called a "fairly dramatic shift."

Public Works staff assured the council that the change was prompted by updated budget figures. The initial request was based on figures from the prior budget, said senior engineer Joe Teresi. The new ones reflect the current costs of ongoing maintenance, engineering and water-quality programs. Because the citizens committee didn't want to raise the overall fee, the recommendation was revised so that the capital component would be smaller.

"The phenomenon you identified comes from trying to keep the total as the same number," storm-drain committee member Hal Mickelson told the council.

Scharff wondered if the shift means that the city will no longer be able to fund all the capital projects that it had identified as part of the effort. These include upgrades near the Adobe Creek in the Palo Verde, Charleston Terrace and East Meadow Circle neighborhoods; improved drainage on Louis Road; and added capacity at several sections of Loma Verde Avenue, on Fabian Way and on Hamilton Avenue in the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, among others.

Phil Bobel, assistant director of Public Works, also noted that because the city's projections for capital projects tend to be conservative, staff is hopeful that the dollars "will go just as far, if not further, than what we estimated."

After the explanation, the council swiftly approved the staff proposal

"This is obviously something we need to do and I think it's really important for the city to get it done," Scharff said of the proposed storm-drain improvements.

The city plans to send out legal notices about the fee changes in early September and hold protest hearing on the fees on Oct. 24. Assuming half of the city's customers don't protest, ballots will be mailed in January. If property owners approve the change, the new fees would take effect on June 1, 2017.


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9 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 1, 2016 at 11:05 am

Those who bought in flood zone areas should pay for their flood prevention work, not everyone else.

12 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 1, 2016 at 12:32 pm

Oh yes. This does the rounds every couple of years. Can't see that storm drains in my area have been improved.

Bigger question is what about all the construction of new homes doing to the storm drains? Bigger houses and lots of stack and pack must be putting a lot of extra water in the storm drains during construction. All these homes with basements are dumping water 24/7 for months. That must be a lot of extra wear and usage.

22 people like this
Posted by Midtowners
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 1, 2016 at 1:57 pm

Midtowners is a registered user.

We're very supportive of the need for both future improvements as well as ongoing maintenance for our storm drain system. But rather than pay for the initiatives through new, higher fees on virtually all residents, why not take the opportunity to cover those costs with the activity which places the highest burden on the system?

Draining groundwater that's being pumped for newly constructed basements is one of the top uses of storm drains (if not the #1 use) in terms of total gallon flow, and this pumped groundwater is the ONLY use of storm drains between April and October of each year.

A simple meter installed on the outflow pipe measures the load being put on our storm drain system, and a small fee per gallon is charged to compensate for the wear and tear being put on our drains/pipes. Seems like a much more rational way to cover expenses based on those who are incurring the most use, no?

2 people like this
Posted by HAHAHA!!!!
a resident of another community
on Sep 1, 2016 at 2:04 pm

OMG, Palo Alto, you're hilarious! We sure dodged a bullet.

6 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 1, 2016 at 2:14 pm

Yet another parcel tax where the funds don't clearly address the issue. I'm guessing this money is going to be used to reconfigure the golf course and airport so it doesn't show up as costs for those boondoggles.

8 people like this
Posted by Flabbergasted
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 1, 2016 at 2:42 pm

It never fails that when council/s cannot come up with solutions to valid problems, they just initiate more public fees. Taxing and then spending the money elsewhere?
Whatever happened to common sense in the Bay Area?

12 people like this
Posted by Save Palo Alto's Groundwater
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 1, 2016 at 3:19 pm

Dewatering for basement construction collectively in calendar year 2015 put as much water into the storm drain system as from all roads combined. In 2016, dewatering for construction of a SINGLE home with a basement put over 30 million gallons into the storm drain system (as measured by the City). This is the same amount of water as would enter the storm drain system from 1,579 equivalent residential units (1 ERU = 2,500 square feet of impervious surface) in an average year. Each property owner will pay $163.80 per year per ERU, for a total payment to discharge the same amount of water greater than $250,000. However, there are NO fees for use of the stormwater management system for dewatering, even though over 1/2 of the costs are for OPERATION.
There are 9 dewatering projects this year, and there were 14 last year.

Is this fair? If you don't feel it is, ask our Council members to pass an ordinance requiring all users of the stormwater management system to pay their fair share before you're asked to vote for this measure, and to reduce your bill by the amount received for "point discharge."

15 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 1, 2016 at 3:21 pm

Palo Alto receives only about 15 inches of rain a year—generally between the months of November and February. Any flooding that occurs is localized to a few specific areas with the system was never engineered properly. To what extent flooding will be reduced from work done in the areas identified is a function of the rain that we get. Keeping in mind that California goes through periodic droughts, the number of flooding events here in Palo Alto is very small.

Given that tens of millions of dollars has been spent to date on the system since the flood of 1998, it would be interesting to have public works actually identify areas where this money has been spent, identifying the resulting decrease in flooding attributed to this work.

It would also be interesting to have the third party audit the system and provide a report on the status of the system’s ability to handle normal rainfall, as well as the abnormal conditions that Palo alto experienced during the flood of 1998. The over banking of San Francisquito Creek only happens once or twice every 50 years or so, so the ability of the storm drain system might well be overtaxed during those extreme events—regardless of how much money we put into the storm drain system.

9 people like this
Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 1, 2016 at 5:54 pm

Some of the comments above are off the mark. (1) The storm drain system does not relate to floods from the creek or the bay, which is what creates the flood zones. It is a city-wide public utility that all property owners should pay for (2) No, the funds are not going to be used for the golf course or any other such unrelated project. (3) Yes, there should be fees charged for basement dewatering, but that activity does not cause any significant impact to the storm drain system, because it occurs only during the dry season, and the system can easily handle it. The main reason to invest in the system is to handle large rain events that occur every 10 years on average, which would cause flooding all over the city absent an adequate storm drain infrastructure.

11 people like this
Posted by Betty Jo
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 1, 2016 at 7:28 pm

Yes there should be metered rate fees for point source discharge from dewatering sites.

Yes, Dewatering occurs April - October in order to reduce it’s impact on Storm drain capacity. (‘Course, that’s just when the Urban forest / City canopy needs that water most. Oh well.)

Because dewatering takes place in summer time is no excuse for not paying to support storm water system needed year around.

ATT doesn’t let me call for free if the call is placed at night instead of day. I don’t get any free data if I pull email at midnight instead of 9 am.

Nope. They know (and we know), that rates support infrastructure necessary for the high capacity needs of worst case volume. Storm water capacity is no different.

Rain events which caused flooding in Palo Alto occurred 1940, 1941, 1955, 1958, 1973, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1992, 1998, 2012 and 2014, resulted from ground saturation followed by sheet flooding from waves of heavy storms. In the 1955 flood, a huge tropical storm (Pineapple Express) saturated the ground to the west of the city, then flowed into much of Palo Alto from the west. In the flood of 1978, 3-4” of rain fell in a single day. Sheet flooding flowed across the intersection of Embarcadero and Newell. In 1982, 5-6” of rain fell over a single three-day period. In the 1998 flood, ground saturation combined with high tides led to another to “historic flood”.

Climate change from not only sea level rise, but also more frequent extreme storm events will make localized flooding more frequent and more probable. Ground saturation from waves of storms mean the storm drain system must support more volume. Basement construction permanently removes soils from the bank we use to absorb storm water. Basements may be ‘out of sight’ to us once they’re dug out, but they’re not ‘out to sight’ to Mother Nature.

This storm water upgrade ballot measure should include point source metered discharge fees for dewatering. We all need to invest in our infrastructure. For sure. It’s the sensible thing to do.

Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 1, 2016 at 8:29 pm

Trying to fold in climate change into this discussion makes no sense—particularly since there is little evidence that California is going to see more frequent and more severe “storms” rather than more frequent and more severe droughts. Most of the predictions from the various “climate alarmists” about more storms has not yet proven true. We do have to worry ourselves about the recurrence of “El Nino”, however.

The issue of groundwater using the storm drain system to remove water to the bay seems to be ludicrous. The system is not degraded by use as our street surfaces are degraded by heavy trucks. Moreover, there aren’t that many basements dug in Palo Alto on a yearly basis.

Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 1, 2016 at 8:38 pm

By the way, we need to introduce the term “ponding” in this discussion, which occurs when the storm drain system disgorges water into the street through a manhole cover because the system can not handle the volume of water passing that particular point in the system, or because the system is full and the rain simply “ponds” in the street waiting for the storm drains to accept this water as time passes.

Flooding involves water moving across the surface of the land.

5 people like this
Posted by betty jo
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 2, 2016 at 6:54 pm

Hi Joe,


Quite right that Shallow Flooding Studies do indeed define terms. “Shallow flooding” is 1-3 feet. “Ponding” is where in flat areas, water collects in depressions. “Sheet flood” is where the water spreads out over the land surface. “Urban drainage” is when runoff collects in depressions or swales and/or when storm sewers back up. “Coastal flooding” is where wave runup sends water inland over flat areas or dunes/levees. My understanding is that “shallow flood”- / sheeting floods of 1 - 1.5 ft deep are fairly frequent In Palo Alto. These tend to happen when the ground gets saturated from water-heavy storms that line up and hit one right after another. The soil can no longer do it’s part to help out the storm drains, which back up with no time to deal with one storm before the next one hits.


It IS hard to wrap one’s brain around both Droughts and Floods. It seems somehow counter-intuitive to think that Global Warming shall increase the risk of both. And yet, that’s just what it does; both Drought and Sea Level Rises, and Less frequent nice rain storms and more frequent clusters of very heavy ones. I think this is because the temperature changes affect both sea water currents AND atmospheric rivers of temperature and moisture.

There is a nifty map of flooding impacts at: Web Link
ALSO, a very nice interactive map at On that site one may enter estimated cm sea level rise and see the impact on Palo Alto Neighborhoods.

have a great weekend.

Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 2, 2016 at 10:47 pm

> My understanding is that “shallow flood”- /
> sheeting floods of 1 - 1.5 ft deep are fairly frequent In Palo Alto

As noted above, the average rainfall in Palo Alto is about 15 inches a year. Routinely there are a couple significant “storms”, and then a number of rain falls of a half inch or less then ultimately accumulate to the historical average of 15 inches of rainfall per year.

Based on historical data (which is available from the US Government), it would be hard to justify the use of the term “frequent flooding” here Palo alto. That said, there are well documented instances where flooding has occurred. Certainly the flooding associated with the flood of 1998 qualifies without exception. Mitigation of that flooding is directly linked to solving several problems with the San Francisquito Creek, which have been avoided by local governments for far too long.

One thing to keep in mind is that no one in the Palo Alto government is keeping track of “flooding events”, or even “ponding” other than a couple of well documented locations. It becomes very easy to suggest that flooding is a problem, without actually having any data to back up such claims.

Re: droughts and floods

Droughts and floods have been ongoing physical events since the beginning of a cooled-down earth. Certainly climate change of one form or another can be linked to droughts, although anyone who tried to do that during periods of glaciation would find little acceptance of his/her claims. Flooding is often the results of unusually high rainfall that overwhelms riverbanks, or manmade containment—such as dikes and dams—having nothing to do with “climate change”. While flooding in some areas happens enough to be considered frequent, flooding as we saw recently in Louisiana was called a 1000 year event--hardly the stuff of climate change.

Sea Level Rise

Given that the Dutch has spent several hundred years perfecting the technology of containing the ocean, it would be difficult to put much stock into any projections about sea level rise here in Palo Alto without considering at least raising the height of the dikes, or perhaps utilizing Dutch Technology in developing better sea walls. Either way, folding in unsubstantiated claims about sea level rise in the discussion of how much infrastructure to fund in the Palo alto storm drain system makes no sense.

3 people like this
Posted by Betty Jo
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 3, 2016 at 8:48 pm

Hi Joe,
Thank you for your engagement on this issue. Clearly, we disagree.
With all respect and best regards,
betty jo

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

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