A proposal by four members of the Palo Alto City Council to transfer a share of the city's water allocations to its parched neighbor, East Palo Alto, gained momentum this week, when the rest of council enthusiastically backed the effort.
With little debate and no dissent, the council directed its Finance Committee to further explore the proposal that council members Eric Filseth, Karen Holman, Tom DuBois and Mayor Pat Burt laid out in a memo. The memo makes a case for shifting a portion of the "individual supply guarantee" that Palo Alto receives from its water supplier, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, to East Palo Alto.
The allocation, which was set in 1984, entitles Palo Alto to up to 17 million gallons of water per day -- far more than the city currently uses (over the past 20 years, the memo notes, Palo Alto has reduced its water usage by 40 percent, to about 10 mgd (millions of gallons per day)). East Palo Alto, by contrast, has an individual supply guarantee of just 1.96 mgd, an inadequate allocation that has hampered the city's growth and prompted the council to declare last year a moratorium on most new development.
The memo from the four council members noted that the allocations were set just as East Palo Alto was being incorporate, a time when large projects such as University Circle, IKEA, Gateway 101 and other developments were not yet planned. Given that East Palo Alto has the lowest residential per capita water use in the region, the memo notes, "The current situation is inadequate to meet its needs."
"In addition, the economic well-being 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 states.
Burt, who serves on the recently formed Joint Recycled Water Advisory Committee (which also includes East Palo Alto, Mountain View and the Santa Clara Valley Water District), noted that East Palo Alto's allocation "severely restricts" its ability to add housing and commercial development. He also argued that transferring about 500,000 gpd to East Palo Alto would have a "pretty nominal impact" on Palo Alto.
"A lot of our community doesn't know the long history of our neighbors and our colleagues in East Palo Alto, where there's been a number of unfair and unjust zoning and other actions over many decades," Burt said. "This is a modest way in which we can help correct one of them."
East Palo Alto Mayor Donna Rutherford thanked the council for considering the transfer and for addressing what she said was a very important issue for her city. East Palo Alto has also requested a higher allocation from the SFPUC, she said.
"We do receive the smallest allotment of water on the Peninsula, and we proposed to SFPUC in regards to giving us an increase," Rutherford said.
Burt's colleague's shared his views. DuBois, who also sits on the regional water committee, argued that helping East Palo Alto overcome its water challenges so that it would be able to build more housing would make sense for all the cities in the region. He also said that he hopes other cities that have excess allocations will follow suit and likewise transfer some of their water guarantees to East Palo Alto. Filseth agreed.
"The bottom line is, we got it, we're not using it, they need it, so we should just do this," Filseth said.
Several Palo Alto residents also made a case for the transfer. Former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, who works as a Bay Area program director at the Tuolumne River Trust, noted that according to the latest projections, Palo Alto is set to use about 10 mgd by 2030, while East Palo Alto is looking at about 3.5 mgd.
"This is a wonderful thing we can do. It's the right thing," Drekmeier said.