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.