As East Palo Alto continues to cope with a water shortage that has effectively frozen new development, four members of the Palo Alto City Council are proposing to shift some of their city's water allocations to their parched neighbor.
The idea, which was proposed in a memo from Mayor Pat Burt and council members Eric Filseth, Karen Holman and Tom DuBois, is to transfer or sell to East Palo Alto a "small portion" of the city's guaranteed allocation from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the regional supplier. The allocations, known as "individual supply guarantees" were established in 1984, when the SFPUC was divvying up portions between San Francisco and the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, a coalition of 26 wholesale customers that includes both Palo Alto and East Palo Alto.
The allocation took place just as East Palo Alto was being incorporated as a city, with little thought given to future growth. As a result, its allocation was only 1.96 million gallons of water per day (mgd). By contrast, Palo Alto received an individual supply guarantee of 17 mgd, far more than the city uses today.
In recent years, as East Palo Alto has continued to grow and expand, the water issue has grown more acute. With the city's allocation still frozen in 1984 levels, development has slowed to a trickle as the city put several major projects on hold. These include a 120-unit affordable-housing development on Weeks Street; major office developments at 2111 University Avenue and 2020 Bay Road and a private school funded by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan.
To cope with the challenge, East Palo Alto has requested from the SFPUC an expanded allocation of 1.5 mgd. The city has also joined a newly formed Joint Recycled Water Advisory Committee, which includes elected officials from Palo Alto, Mountain View and the Santa Clara Valley Water District. During the committee's March meeting, just after East Palo Alto and Mountain View were introduced as new members, water district Board Member Gary Kremen called East Palo Alto's water allocation "unfair" and said he'd like to see some progress on that front.
"If there was a way that we can, in the county, help them out from the potable-drinking-water point of view, I'm really excited about this," Kremen said.
Burt and DuBois, who also serve on the regional committee, agree. In the new memo that they co-signed with Filseth and Holman, they request that the council either schedule a discussion of how to transfer to East Palo Alto some of Palo Alto's individual supply guarantee or to delegate the debate to the council's Policy and Service Committee.
"Given that East Palo Alto has the lowest residential per capita water use in the region, the current situation is inadequate to meet its needs," the memo states. "In addition, the economic wellbeing of East Palo Alto is important to Palo Alto, and its ability to provide affordable and obtainable housing helps support its surrounding communities."
The memo also notes that Palo Alto has plenty of water to give, particularly given the recent surge of conservation. Through their agreement with SFPUC, the 26 customers that make up BAWSCA are allocated 184 mgd of water. As the memo points out, last year they collectively purchased only 126 mgd. Palo Alto has done its share, having reduced its water usage over the past 20 years by 40 percent, to about 10 mgd. The SFPUC projects that Palo Alto will need about 11.9 mgd in 2020, with use "slightly decreasing thereafter as water conservation programs continue."
The terms of the cities' agreement with SFPUC expressly provide for transfers between wholesale customers of individual supply guarantees. The terms also specify that the transfers must be permanent and that the minimum quantity transferred is 0.1 mgd.
The Palo Alto council is scheduled to consider the memo and lay out the city's next steps on Dec. 5.