Palo Alto aims to boost East Palo Alto water supply

City Council agrees to transfer portion of city's water allocation across the county line

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.


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11 people like this
Posted by Still on hold
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2016 at 7:46 pm

If the Council would please direct the utility here to give notices that we are no longer under drought restriction, and that we can count on that as we replant our dead trees, vegetable garden and small patch of native grasses in back, and that we are able to start working through the backlog of large laundry items, for example, it would make a big difference in our lives and I would be far more supportive of this move. It has been outrageous enough to endure the impacts of the drought restrictions with the office development in town going gangbusters. A casual post on these boards is not sufficient.

9 people like this
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 8, 2016 at 9:47 pm

NO! East Palo Alto is in another county. It is not Palo Alto's responsibility. Meanwhile, instead of getting fresh Hetch Hetchy water, we are getting a mix of sources. This is a terrible idea and not serving Palo Alto residents' interests.

14 people like this
Posted by JvG
a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 9, 2016 at 6:15 am

As a Palo Alto resident for 38 years, ending this month, I have seen many cycles of drought and water. It saddens me to see people not watering their trees and plants. There is enough water to do this and long term effects of not watering these plants are bad Killing trees by redirecting water and deforestation in Biblical times dramatically expanded the Sahara desert.
To me, while there is a shortage of water this more about potable water and politics. My former neighbor at 12 feet elevation was able to run 2 big(at least 4 inch) hoses for months to de-water for a basement. They just stopped the hose in th

Supporting our neighbors and taking a non selfish approach make sense. Tell the state of CA to stop allowing almond farmers to use 10% of all water in the state while all residents use 8%. While it may make us feel good to cut our water usage, it has almost 0 impact on the water available to CA. We cut 10%, LA and So Cal cuts nothing and we have a drought still. Surprised? I'm not.
Besides, if you water where does your water go? Into the sky and then it makes over the Sierras? Or, does it go into the SF Bay which is an estuary. There were big problems in the '70s when the Bay became too salty and things start dying. We need to take a longer term view. Replacing green with hardscape doesn't help either. Then the water is running off into a storm drain.

We do not need to be greedy rich selfish people. The attitudes expressed above in the comments about why I am special because I live in Palo Alto is why we are moving.Kudos to the council for keeping PA's social justice attitude alive. This kind of action by the council is what makes me proud to be a PA native.

3 people like this
Posted by Res
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 9, 2016 at 7:56 am

PA is heading towards fiscal deficit. If EPA wants additional water, in substantial part to fuel office (read tax) development, sell the water rights to them.

9 people like this
Posted by Sven Thesen
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 9, 2016 at 9:11 am

I share these specific sentiments of JdG above:

"We do not need to be greedy rich selfish people." and
"Kudos to the council for keeping PA's social justice attitude alive. This kind of action by the council is what makes me proud to be a PA native."

And from a selfish reason, this has the potential to reduce commuting traffic (+ air pollution) via increased housing stock in EPA.
Sven at

15 people like this
Posted by Fair
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 9, 2016 at 9:23 am

If you look at the history of the water allocation it's clear that EPA got the short end of the stick. What was done to EPA was, in my mind, a vestige of a society and culture that was divisive and not inclusive. I wholeheartedly support sharing our over-abundance of water (we use just a little over half of what we need -- even with population and commercial growth -- and should share with our neighbors). I do NOT support giving it with strings however (just for housing), EPA needs to have self-determination and for us to "outsource" our housing crisis to them is unfair. They should develop their city the way they see fit and not have their "rich neighbors" telling them what to do. They need to be fiscally strong and if some of the water goes for commercial development to help them be on better financial footing then we should support that. We need to increase our own housing stock as well and not listen to those who say there isn't enough water for us to do our share of development for affordable housing. That's a straw man. Together we can grow our cities in moderate and sustainable ways and prove that difficult issues can be dealt with responsibly and fairly.

Like this comment
Posted by Anna
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Dec 10, 2016 at 3:55 pm

I'm a little surprised folks say their trees and gardens are dying. Ours are just fine and we're under the limit for water use.
We don't flush when not necessary, we let laundry pile up until there's enough to FILL the washing machine, and we don't take hour-long showers--altho' we still shower longer than we have to.
Palo Alto and its strangely quiet "Sustainability Department" need to step up alternate sourcing of water, such as rainwater and graywater.

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

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