Defying water suppliers, Palo Alto backs Bay-Delta Plan | News | Palo Alto Online |


Defying water suppliers, Palo Alto backs Bay-Delta Plan

City Council moves to support state proposal for requiring more unimpaired flow at Tuolumne River

In order for all area residents to have important local information on the coronavirus health emergency, Palo Alto Online has lifted its pay meter and is providing unlimited access to its website. We need your support to continue our important work. Please join your neighbors and become a subscribing member today.

Palo Alto plunged into the fierce debate over California's water policies on Monday night, when the City Council voiced unanimous support for the amended Bay-Delta Plan despite objections from the city's water suppliers and its own Utilities Department.

The council sided squarely with Palo Alto's environmentalists, led by former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, who are pitted in this debate against the office of Gov. Jerry Brown, state Sen. Jerry Hill, the city's own Utilities Department and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC).

The latter group -- along with the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA), the alliance of 26 cities on the Peninsula and in Alameda County that draw their water from the San Francisco agency -- prefers to allow water agencies to negotiate settlements with the state over water-conservation measures.

Both SFPUC and BAWSCA came out against the amended Bay-Delta plan, which the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) released in early July and which was the subject of two public hearings this week. Brown has not weighed in on SFPUC's specific alternative, though his office supports the idea of letting water districts reach settlements with the State Water Board.

The new plan focuses on the lower San Joaquin River and its three tributaries, the Stanislaus, Merced and Tuolumne rivers. The Tuolumne River, which flows from the high Sierra Nevada to the Central Valley, also provides water for the Hetch Hetchy system that supplies 85 percent of the SFPUC's potable water. (The State Water Board is working on a separate plan for the Sacramento River and its tributaries.)

Specifically, the amended Bay-Delta Plan would require the "unimpaired flow" of the San Joaquin and its three tributaries to be 40 percent during the period extending from February to June. This means that 40 percent of the rivers' water production would have to be "unaltered by upstream diversions, storage or by export or import of water to or from other watersheds."

Under the Bay-Delta Plan, water agencies would also be required to provide annual reports demonstrating their compliance with the goal. They would also have to produce a "comprehensive report" every three to five years, which would be peer-reviewed by a scientific panel and then subject to public hearings.

The new objectives "recognize the need for flows of an adequate volume and more variable pattern on the three major tributaries to provide habitat and migratory signals and protections for native fish," the State Water Board's overview of the plan states.

The State Water Board concluded that while 60 percent of "unimpaired flow" would improve conditions for a healthy fishery, the requirement would cause more economic damage to water users, including the SFPUC. Thus, it decided to go with the 40 percent level as a starting point, while allowing an "adaptive range" for unimpaired flow of 30 percent to 50 percent.

Is 40 percent too high?

But critics of the plan allege that adopting even the 40 percent level could hinder economic growth and potentially lead to major cutbacks in water use. Nicole Sandkulla, chief executive officer of BAWSCA, argued in a letter that, if implemented during a drought, the agency's water users could be required to cut back water use from the recent pre-drought level of 79 gallons per person per day to 41 gallons per day or — for some cities — as low as 25 gallons per day.

"Community development might be delayed and new housing might not be built," the letter states. "A community without enough water for job growth and fully operational businesses, hospitals and public institutions is unsustainable."

Steve Ritchie, assistant general manager at the SFPUC, said his agency believes the lower San Joaquin River plan would "have significant impacts on our water supply with actually uncertain benefits for the Tuolumne River." The plan, he told the council, is based on the Water Board's studies of other "unmodified" river basins. Its conclusions, he claimed, don't fit as well with the Tuolumne, which is heavily modified and requires a "different kind of thinking."

Ritchie said Monday that the SFPUC, along with the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts, believe greater benefits can be achieved with strategically planned "functional flows." The most effective ways to make the needed improvements, he said, is to couple these requirements with habitat improvements "developed specifically for the Tuolumne River by those who have done research on the Tuolumne River for decades."

"They are obsessed with flow and not really thinking about what will make the river work better, what will produce better fishery benefits," Ritchie said, referring to the Water Board.

River Trust: 'Disingenuous' criticisms

But one organization that has long studied the Tuolumne River strongly contested the water agencies' positions. The Tuolumne River Trust called the SFPUC proposal to rely on negotiated settlements "myopic," its criticisms "disingenuous" and its proposed approach "doomed to fail," according to a letter that the group's Executive Director Patrick Koepele sent to the water board. Allowing water agencies to reach settlement agreements that only include "non-flow measures" (actions that do not address flow capacity) is inadequate, he argued, pointing to the 1995 settlement agreement that the SFPUC and the Modesto and Turlock districts signed with various nonprofit organization and federal regulators. The approach relied heavily on "non-flow" measures, Koepele wrote, and it largely failed to protect the salmon population.

"Put simply, the full ecosystem needs to be restored, not just a limited set of specific elements that are part of the ecosystem," Koepele's letter states. "Salmon and steelhead recover cannot be achieved without providing sufficient habitat throughout the full spawning, rearing and migratory route.

"The SFPUC Alternative's proposed actions to modify spawning and in-channel rearing habitat are very limited geographically, and they ignore the need for habitat improvements in the Tuolumne River corridor and downstream as far as the Delta."

Drekmeier, who serves as policy director at the Tuolumne River Trust, criticized the two water agencies for both their position on the Bay-Delta Plan and on how they arrived at their preferred alternative. Ritchie told the council on Monday that the water agencies had several public meetings on the Bay-Delta plan since early 2017. But Drekmeier argued that the two agencies "have done everything possible to control the conversation and the message of this issue."

The Tuolumne River Trust, he said, had to wage a campaign just to get the Bay-Delta Plan on the SFPUC agenda. And when it came to the BAWSCA board, discussion was limited to residents speaking up during the public-comment section of the meeting. The agencies held numerous closed-door meetings with "important decision-makers," Drekmeier said, and his organization had to file Public Records Act requests to learn what information was exchanged.

Drekmeier also criticized the agencies' projections of potential cutbacks in water use, should the Bay-Delta plan be implemented. The SFPUC combined the two worst droughts of the past 50 years, he said, and based its rationing projections on that extreme scenario. A more realistic estimate, he said, suggests that the region can survive the worst drought on record with 10 percent rationing, well below the 20 to 40 percent cited by the water agencies.

The proposal to use negotiated settlements, he said, would effectively allow the agencies to go through a checklist of agreed-upon measures and claim compliance even if the measures prove ineffective. And while Ritchie suggested that the new Bay-Delta plan could lead to lengthy litigation, Drekmeier argued the SFPUC and BAWSCA aim to basically "wear down the State Water Board and get (their) way."

Residents to council: Reject staff recommendation

The debate appeared to have caught Palo Alto council members and staff by surprise. Last week, the item was scheduled to go on the council's "consent" calendar, where the city's approval of the SFPUC and BAWSCA's position would have been effectively rubber-stamped by the council. In recent days, however, the council has received dozens of emails, with many urging council members to support the Bay-Delta Plan or, at the very least, to hold a full discussion on the topic (the packet of letters and emails added up to 77 pages).

The council also heard from about 20 residents, with nearly everyone urging members to break from the Utilities Department recommendation and support the Bay-Delta Plan. Resident Annette Isaacson asked the council to "take a stand to protect the ecosystem."

"Without this protection, these rivers could become warmer, murkier and shrivel to a crawl, endangering the whole ecosystem," Isaacson told the council.

After hearing from both sides, Councilman Greg Scharff made the motion to reject the staff recommendation and to take Drekmeier's side. At least three of his colleagues immediately seconded his motion. The history of the environmental movement, Scharff said, is that there is "always a dire prediction for everything." Despite these predictions, Californians adopted measures to make the air cleaner, protect open space and restore marshes.

"Today, everyone agrees these are the right things to do and if we hadn't done them we would've been worse off," Scharff said. "Doing the right thing is protecting the Bay-Delta ecosystem. The Bay-Delta ecosystem shouldn't be destroyed because we're running out of water. We need to figure out how to protect it and how to provide the right amount of water."

Vice Mayor Eric Filseth concurred and said the city should "stay true to our values and support the Bay-Delta Plan."

"I find it unconscionable that we in our state, the bluest of blue states in the nation, would damage our environment to prop up Silicon Valley industry at a time when we actually have the water but don't want to move it," Filseth said. "If we do that, we're no better than the federal government that is damaging the environment to prop up the fossil-fuel industry."

Councilwoman Karen Holman observed that it's rare for the council to so significantly oppose the recommendation of its Utility Department. In this case, however, she said the economic risk cited by opponents of the Bay-Delta plan appears to not be supported by the data. She also noted that while a major goal of the plan is to support the salmon population, the issues involved in the water debate are far broader.

"It's never just about one thing. It's never just about one species. It's about the broader ecosystem and what we can do to support it," Holman said.


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

We need your support now more than ever. Can we count on you?


14 people like this
Posted by Drinkwater
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 21, 2018 at 7:22 pm

As usual, Council caves in to the wacko environmentalists

16 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 21, 2018 at 7:44 pm

I don't know why the City has professionals, it seems the Council, because they have a high inflated status, know a lot more than any professional with qualifications on the subject and relevant experience in their field.

Yet of course, they are quite good at suggesting expensive consultants when it suits them.

26 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 21, 2018 at 8:15 pm

"... it seems the Council, because they have a high inflated status, know a lot more than any professional with qualifications on the subject and relevant experience in their field."

The function of the city council is to represent the citizens to the city government. In this uncommon instance where they all voted their constituents' wishes they should be thanked, not criticized. It might just encourage them to do it again.

They tried government by expert professionals in the Soviet Union, remember? Look how that turned out.

24 people like this
Posted by Rick
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 21, 2018 at 8:37 pm

Rick is a registered user.

@Drinkwater, You mean the council that massivly increases pollution by overdevelopment and creating a massive gridlock of out of town idling cars? That city council?

4 people like this
Posted by DTN Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 22, 2018 at 8:18 am

DTN Paul is a registered user.


Your assertion that the city council's policies "massively increases pollution" is pretty baseless. In fact, denser development means less pollution per capita.

20 people like this
Posted by Bay area resident
a resident of another community
on Aug 22, 2018 at 8:47 am

Very happy about the City council decision.
More people need to learn more about the long term trends. The future does not look good. Global climate change and environmental degradation is going to accelerate. So called "economic growth/development" will soon become anathema. Our very survival will depend on stopping "economic growth." (Just like stopping cancer growth).

In the not so distant future we'll only care about stopping climate change and restoring environment. The earlier we start the cheaper it will be!!!

13 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 22, 2018 at 8:50 am

Fresh water is going to be -the- economic issue for the 21st century, and, California needs to get this right. We all need to become educated about the -details-. Water rights law doesn't do a very good job of prioritizing. Fisheries, for example, are at a disadvantage because the fish are a shared resource-- no one owns one particular migrating salmon- and, the effects of policies are felt downstream both literally and in time. Yet, many people realize health benefits from eating salmon/steelhead/trout. Fisheries are in direct competition for water with the farmers in the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts.

As I stated, we all need to become better educated about the details.

4 people like this
Posted by Bay area resident
a resident of another community
on Aug 22, 2018 at 9:22 am

There is no "health benefits" of eating fish, or any other animal for that matter, unless no plant food is not available. People just have to stop eating junk food and eating too much. Most of the fish in the oceans and rivers is already destroyed. When humans will stop to be so greedy and respect other life? "Economic interests" of fisheries is not really what we have to support long term.

We are quickly progressing to self destruction and with prevalent attitudes of greed and "economic growth" we rightly deserve it.

8 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 22, 2018 at 9:41 am

If we are talking about food supply for world population then we are on another topic. If we are talking about growing enough plant food to feed the increasing population, we are going to have to look at better ways of producing larger quantities of food on existing farmed space, or face the consequence of removing natural habit to turn over to farming.

Sorry to say it, but increasing populations worldwide are going to cause more GM food and since "organic" farming produces less food per acre, the likelihood is that only the rich will be eating these luxury food commodities (i.e. organic and non GM), if they exist at all.

Whether we like it or not, the planet's population is growing. It has nothing to do with migration, densification or any other trending label, but the fact that we can't stop people having babies no matter where on the planet they live.

The need to feed the population for the next century is something scientists are very concerned about.

7 people like this
Posted by Bay area resident
a resident of another community
on Aug 22, 2018 at 10:00 am

World population won't be growing forever.
It is projected to peak around 2040 and decline afterwards.
We cannot support ever growing population anyway. Instead of trying to accomodate more growth with technology, GMO foods etc. better we do everything in our power to put breaks on any kind of grown. Otherwise nature will do it for us.

Really speaking very soon we are going to learn the hard way that "material growth" is a bad thing. We have to grow back biodiversity, environment. Better we grow ethically, spiritually as human beings.

12 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 22, 2018 at 10:38 am

Annette is a registered user.

Paul Ehrlich started warning about the consequences of unchecked population growth in the late 1960s. If memory serves, he coined the phrase ZPG. Time to sit up and pay closer attention?

33 people like this
Posted by PA Environmentalist
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Aug 22, 2018 at 11:07 am

The elephant in the room here is the amount of water used by agriculture to grow crops like almonds and walnuts. It takes a gallon of water to produce one almond and 5 gallons of water to produce one walnut. Most of the walnuts and almonds are shipped out of state or overseas. The over-pumping of the aquifer in the SJ Valley to produce these and other high water demand crops has caused subsidence of nearly 40 feet in places. This compacts the aquifer, which means it cannot be replenished, and has severely damaged the irrigation canals, which will be extremely costly to repair.

The dams and severe flow restrictions have killed off one of the Chinook Salmon - the spring run salmon - that spawned in the San Joaquin Delta and higher up the river. And the fall run salmon have dwindled to almost nothing. The Bay Delta Plan, now supported by Palo Alto, would go a long way to helping that Chinook salmon population recover as well as helping to replenish our sub-surface water supplies.

Before you jump all over the folks who are trying to protect/replenish California's natural ecosystems and salmon spawning/hatching grounds, educate yourself. Do a search on Tuolumne River Trust and take a look at the list of links which pop up to that and other sites which provide a wide range of information. Ecologists and scientists who have studied the water system for years are agreed that the Bay Delta Plan is essential to the health of the San Joaquin Delta ecosystem.

We are also going to have to take a look at future job and population growth. How much can our environment/water supply etc. actually support without collapse? But that is another discussion.

2 people like this
Posted by Myopic
a resident of another community
on Aug 22, 2018 at 11:47 am

This is a very short-sighted move on the Council's part. In a year or two, when the State Water Board issues a similar plan for the Sacramento River, which would dramatically affect the amount and timing of hydroelectricity that Palo Alto gets from its hydro resources (and thereby causing electric rates to soar), you all are going to look mighty foolish trying to oppose that plan.

Also, if this plan does get approved, it's going to be held up in litigation for years anyway.

But hey! You got to grandstand as environmentalists! Totally worth it...

6 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 22, 2018 at 12:22 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

Well, well, well, "a nice dilemma we have here"...from Gilbert and Sullivan.

I watched the CC meeting on Channel 26 last Monday night. I was impressed by Drekmeier's presentation (the detail and presumably the real facts on the issue) and it was apparently compelling enough for CC to vote the way they did. Only history will tell if they got it right. Climatologists, meteorologists, climate change experts, statisticians...the entire science community, sometimes struggle to find agreement on our future water supply. Then comes the interference of special interest groups, lobbying our elected government officials on their behalf, the political side of the coin, the worst side, in my opinion. I will just watch and wait.

I, too, have my own personal interests. I love the good water, good drinking water (without the need of Britas or any of those other fancy filters), that comes out of my faucets. Thanks to PA for making the deal with SF many years ago to buy Hetch Hetchy water for our city. My family used to enjoy going up to Pulgas Water Temple and watching that Hetch Hetchy water pour up and out and run down to the reservoir from which our good water was drawn. I hope that will continue.

Now to the other side. I am an avid salmon fisherman, a regular on the Salty Lady party boat (recreational fishing), out of Sausalito. This has been an excellent year so far for me. Limits, 2 per person per trip, on 4 out of my 5 trips. One big fish on the 5th trip. No skunks so far. There are many reasons for the increase in salmon populations in the Pacific this year, but healthy rivers, fed by cold water mountain streams have to be maintained to sustain it. I would love to have you join me on the Salty Lady for a fun day of fishing, whale and bird watching, and to see an occasional great white or sea lion (fur ball) coming to strip our salmon off our hooks. Great captain, deck hands, and other fellow fishermen...oops, and women.

2 people like this
Posted by SaveTheSalmon
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 22, 2018 at 1:34 pm

To protect the fish, stop all sport and commercial fishing until the population is healthy. Everyone needs to share the pain to meet the environmental goals. Including all river rafting until it is scientifically proven not to impact salmon.

10 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 22, 2018 at 3:22 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

The most important thing is to halt the population growth in California. Overpopulation is an existential global problem, but this is about California's survival. California was always water poor and prone to protracted periods of draught. Adding to the Bay area's population, ff we allow agencies like ABAG have their way, is akin to communal/environmental suicide on many levels, water supply being at the top of them.

7 people like this
Posted by Ken Gibson
a resident of another community
on Aug 22, 2018 at 5:04 pm

As an East Bay resident, I am very pleased that Palo Alto has acted in the best interests of the whole environment rather the interests of some unspecified water users. This will help erode the SFPUC's excuse, serving the needs of its wholesale customers, for penalizing the many to the advantage of a few.
I'd like us to get past Phase 1 of the SWRCB's project so that we can take up Phase 2 and East Bay Municipal Utility District can support parallel management of the Sacramento River to protect the ecosystem of our shared region.
Water service providers around the Bay need to invest in groundwater storage management, recycling and other strategies to improve urban and rural resilience in providing water for human needs. They also need to increase water rates for customers who strain system capacity with high water volume use per capita (at home or at work)and reduce fixed charges to zero. This is the surest way to provide fairness for people who have made the effort to reduce their water use to what is required for human health and dignity.

8 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 23, 2018 at 11:58 pm

Posted by PA Environmentalist, a resident of Esther Clark Park

>> The elephant in the room here is the amount of water used by agriculture to grow crops like almonds and walnuts. It takes a gallon of water to produce one almond and 5 gallons of water to produce one walnut. Most of the walnuts and almonds are shipped out of state or overseas.

The elephant in the room is actually beef production, not almonds. Look at the chart in figure 5 on page 6 of this report:

Web Link

Corn, alfalfa, and pasture, used largely for cattle, are all much less economically productive uses for water than almonds and pistachios. Most beef production in California is an uneconomic use for water. It makes more economic sense to grow almonds here, and, ship beef from the midwest.

I agree with you that water is a critical resource, but, I don't agree that almonds should be singled out. Almonds and pistachios are much higher value crops than corn, alfalfa, pasture, and rice.

1 person likes this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 24, 2018 at 4:19 am

> "a gallon of water to produce one almond and 5 gallons of water to produce one walnut"

Probably silly, but serious question... I can't squeeze a drop of water out of an almond or walnut, so where did all that water go? I know it didn't dissociate into hydrogen and oxygen. I assume it went into roots and leaves and transpiration, eventually evaporating and then raining back down somewhere in the Sierras and recycled into our rivers or groundwater. Or does it all vanish into Nevada? What percentage of irrigation water is irrevocably "lost"?

Not explained very well in all those textbook diagrams of "the water cycle".

Like this comment
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 24, 2018 at 5:19 am

I also question the highly illustrative claim that for each almond grown a gallon of water is lost. I think almonds are getting a bad rap. I read somewhere that agricultural advances are such that we now have less water-needy almonds. I also think Cal Ag now uses deep drip irrigation which lessens the amount of water needed. They have also been innovative in other water conservation methods such as lining irrigation channels w/o critical habitat loss.

Maybe the one gallon per almond data point is based on old irrigation practices. Years ago it was not unusual to drive past a beautiful California orchard and see a huge fan of water sweeping over the crops. Or the ground being completely saturated. Growers wisely abandoned those practices.

2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 24, 2018 at 10:47 am

There is a lot of useful information available on the water intensity of various foods, as well as the market value of those foods. Here are a couple more news articles that reflect the information found in some of the available reports:

Web Link

Web Link

The bottom line is that taking both water intensity and value into account, it makes the most economic sense to purchase most beef from out of state and direct the water to other uses.

Like this comment
Posted by HealOurPlanet
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 24, 2018 at 3:56 pm

Kudos to the PA council on this water board decision! Very brave and also forward looking.

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


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

Stay up to date on local coronavirus coverage with our daily news digest email.

Food Safety and Coronavirus: A Comprehensive Guide
By Laura Stec | 11 comments | 29,515 views

These local restaurants are donating meals to Bay Area residents in need. Here's how to help.
By Elena Kadvany | 6 comments | 10,803 views

Coronavirus: Plan ahead now for a big outbreak
By Diana Diamond | 18 comments | 3,887 views

Will the Coronavirus Save Lives?
By Sherry Listgarten | 28 comments | 3,715 views

How COVID-19 Affects Communities
By Jessica Zang | 10 comments | 1,021 views



The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by April 10, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category. Sponsored by Kepler's Books, Linden Tree Books and Bell's Books.

Contest Details