On Tuesday, city of Palo Alto staff updated the community on possibilities to expand the use of recycled water locally, and their ideas sounded promising. Replacing Hetch Hetchy water with recycled water could leave more water flowing down the Tuolumne River (the source for Hetch Hetchy) while potentially saving ratepayers money. The key will be to make sure the offset water provides environmental benefits.
On a parallel track, Valley Water (formerly Santa Clara Valley Water District) has proposed partnering with Palo Alto to build an advance purified recycled water facility at the Regional Water Quality Control Plant. This project would produce nine million gallons per day of high quality water for consumption in Valley Water's service area, which includes most of Santa Clara County, but not Palo Alto, which purchases its water from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC).
The Valley Water project has merit but, again, only if it provides environmental benefits. Surveys show that the number one motivator for people to conserve water (and one would assume to support the use of recycled water) is to help restore aquatic ecosystems.
Last August, our City Council voted unanimously to support the State's Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan, which would increase unimpaired flows (what would exist in the absence of dams and diversions) in the Tuolumne and other rivers. The plan aims to restore salmon, steelhead trout and other fish populations. Unfortunately, Valley Water's position falls in stark contrast to that of Palo Alto. In January, it sued the State Water Board over new instream flow standards adopted in the revised Bay Delta Plan.
Valley Water did not conduct its own analysis of the Bay Delta Plan but instead relied upon deceptive information provided by the SFPUC. The SFPUC has manufactured a "design drought" that couples the worst two droughts from the latter half of the last century, creating an arbitrary eight-year drought scenario. Other water agencies plan for a three-to-five-year drought.
The SFPUC then treats every year as if it's the beginning or middle of their design drought, claiming that even when reservoir storage is high, the commission would have to impose extreme rationing if the Bay Delta Plan is implemented. If Valley Water embraced a similar drought planning scenario, rationing in their service area would likely be much more severe, and people would question the prudence of additional development.
At the height of the recent drought — which included the driest four-year period on record — the SFPUC still had enough water in storage to last three years. We weren't even close to running out. Palo Altans and other SFPUC customers stepped up to the plate, and between 2006 and 2016 we reduced our water use by 30%. Unfortunately, the water we conserved did not benefit the Tuolumne River but instead was hoarded behind dams for future use.
Between 2012 and 2016, only 12% of the Tuolumne's unimpaired flow reached the river's confluence with the San Joaquin, and the river suffered terribly. However, by the summer of 2016, while we were still in the drought, the SFPUC's reservoirs had filled to 85% of capacity — enough water to last five years. Then came the storms of 2017, and the SFPUC had the right to capture enough water to last 12 years. With no place to store it, almost all of that water had to be "dumped" into the river at maximum allowable releases for five straight months. The Tuolumne experienced one excessively good year at the expense of five terrible years. This was a terrible way to manage such a vital ecosystem.
Water agencies manage water not just for droughts but also to enable more development. Plan Bay Area 2040, a regional roadmap prepared by Bay Area Metro (formerly the Association of Bay Area Governments and Metropolitan Transportation Commission), forecasts the addition of 1.3 million more jobs and 2 million more people to the Bay Area between 2010 and 2040. Between 2010 and 2015, half of those jobs were already added, but only 13% of the housing was, exacerbating the jobs/housing imbalance. A survey of San Francisco voters conducted last year found that of those with an opinion, 85% believed Plan Bay Area would make their quality of life worse.
Like many others, I believe Palo Alto and its neighbors have a responsibility to address our region's extreme jobs/housing imbalance, but we must acknowledge that the issue isn't just one of supply but also demand. As long as jobs continue to outpace housing by 5-to-1, we will never catch up on housing. The never-ending development of office space will continue to worsen traffic, parking and the housing crisis. According to the most recent National Citizen Survey, traffic and housing topped the list of problems Palo Alto residents are most worried about.
In its review of the Bay Delta Plan last summer, the Palo Alto City Council was the only elected agency to fully deliberate on the issue, hearing from both sides before making a decision. By a 9-to-0 vote, the council determined the environmental benefits were huge, while the potential economic impacts were minimal. Council saw through the SFPUC's false and misleading narrative that dramatically exaggerates the potential impacts of the Bay Delta Plan. I'm proud of our city!
Now, the city of Palo Alto should put negotiations with Valley Water on hold until the district drops its lawsuit against the Bay Delta Plan. Without a clear demonstration that recycled water will benefit the environment, Valley Water's plan will fail to gain support from the Palo Alto community.
The days of always making water available for development, but rarely for the environment, should be put squarely behind us.
Peter Drekmeier is a former council member and mayor of Palo Alto and currently serves as policy director for the Tuolumne River Trust. He can be reached at [email protected].