Guest Opinion: Water conservation, reuse should benefit environment


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).

Peter Drekmeier
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


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9 people like this
Posted by Konrad
a resident of another community
on May 3, 2019 at 8:07 am

Bay area residents work hard to conserve water to help ecosystems. It's a shame that our conservation efforts simply go into the "general fund" of CA water which is controlled by large corporations (not family farms unfortunately). Progressive cities should insist that our conservation efforts translate directly into more water for ecosystems.

34 people like this
Posted by Just Say NO
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 3, 2019 at 8:17 am

If northern California reduces its Hetch Hetchy water usage, then the majority of it will continue to go to southern California & the Central Valley.

Make those areas with the most water consumption resort to using recycled water.

We don't owe them any favors and besides, with more population density and corporate agribusiness in those regions, they will have more water to recycle for themselves.

9 people like this
Posted by David Smernoff
a resident of Portola Valley
on May 3, 2019 at 8:26 am

We live in a complex ecosystem that includes steelhead, high tech jobs, aquatic insects and elected officials. What unites us all is water. It's long past time for the water in our cerebral cortex to unite with the water in our rivers and make choices that support critical ecosystem functions, and manage growth responsibly. Thank you Peter for your well-articulated description of the issues at hand. I look forward to Valley water dropping their lawsuit and getting on board to protect instream flows as the highly regarded Bay Delta plan recommends.

8 people like this
Posted by Mary Holzer
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 3, 2019 at 8:47 am

Peter is absolutely right that the incredible pressure to develop, develop, develop is the driving force behind the SFPUC's misguided, if not fallacious, water plan. There is no way to keep up with the resultant housing demand, nor can other necessary/supporting infrastructure keep pace. We should not be using water to facilitate this growth at the expense of the environment.

9 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 3, 2019 at 8:55 am

There is definitely a case of one hand not seeing what the other is doing.

It is amazing just how much water we see being flushed down the drains - quite literally. Annually, our supply lines are flushed and the water just runs down to the storm drains. This hurts particularly in times of drought when we are told not to flush toilets or water our lawns. This water flushing should be done in such a way as to allow the run off to be collected and used as non-potable water for irrigation of city owned landscaping, for example.

I would also like to see some research on all the draining being done for basements in construction, etc. Apart from the fact that this water is not being collected and generally goes to the storm drains, what is this doing to subsidence in the areas concerned?

13 people like this
Posted by Winter
a resident of Barron Park
on May 3, 2019 at 8:58 am

Yes - the City should put its negotiations on hold. It only makes sense given its prior unanimous vote.

Peter’s analysis is right about having no hope to ever rationally address housing by any means while demand rages on unmitigated and with its consequences for our water supply, the Toulumne and greater environment and our lives.

Examples is most of the housing that Mountain View and Redwood City is building, as if it alone is good, but compared to the office and commercial development they approve, it worsens their housing imbalance.

Palo Alto must continue to take a different path in water policy and on restricting demand - which we should tighten.

16 people like this
Posted by Heinrich Albert
a resident of another community
on May 3, 2019 at 9:04 am

Agreed--I, like most of my Bay Area neighbors conserve water to reduce the excessive and destructive diversions from our rivers. I want to protect the rivers, the lives of our fish and the entire ecosystem that depends on those rivers. I am NOT conserving/reusing water to fuel the unlimited growth that makes the quality of life in the Bay Area worse. In California water is a Public Trust--it is not the private property of the growth cheerleaders like the Bay Area Council or of the farming corporations that use huge amounts of subsidized water as corporate welfare.

6 people like this
Posted by Sign the Petition
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 3, 2019 at 9:24 am

Please sign the "Drop the Bay Delta Plan Lawsuit" petition at
Web Link

11 people like this
Posted by Annette Isaacson
a resident of Midtown
on May 3, 2019 at 9:28 am

As Peter Drekmeier concludes, "The days of always making water available for development, but rarely for the environment, should be put squarely behind us." We must protect our environment. Valley Water is on the wrong side of history this time

13 people like this
Posted by Mark Rockwell
a resident of another community
on May 3, 2019 at 9:52 am

I am the President of Northern California's Fly Fishing Council, and a former 20 year resident of Portola Valley. For more than 15 years I've worked and evaluated the causes of declining salmon and other fish in the By-Delta watershed east of the Bay Area. Over all the years there is one simple reason salmon cannot make it back from near extinction. Salmon need water! It's where their food lives,and where their life giving oxygen comes from. It's where they live. The problem has been that too much fresh water is extracted from the Delta for human use, and not enough is left behind to support fish and wildlife. The State Water Board has spent 4+ years studying how to make the Bay-Delta better and concluded more water needs to flow into and through the system. Santa Clara Water District (now Valley Water) and SFPUC both are creating the impression they cannot adapt to the new policy recommended by the Water Board. That is simply not true! They have the ability and the need to adapt, and realize that all of us - people and fish - are in this new climate change reality together. Salmon are important to Bay Area residents, and they need water. Stop the lawsuit, change policy at SFPUC and accept the Water Board's new policy. It's the right thing to do!

15 people like this
Posted by David Schrom
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 3, 2019 at 9:54 am

We are too many people using too many resources. We have already impoverished ourselves and those who may follow. The Bay Delta Plan is a small step towards sanity. Peter makes the case compellingly. Members of the Santa Clara Valley Water Board and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission are working against common good to promote the interests of a handful.

9 people like this
Posted by Karen Harwell
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 3, 2019 at 10:41 am

We are so fortunate to have knowledgeable, informed citizens who understand whole system thinking when it comes to solving problems. Thank you Peter Drekmeier for making it clear that unless we value and respond in kind working with the whole system, we will short cut everything with limited biases. I strongly urge Valley Water to drop their lawsuit and work for the benefit of protecting instream flows as the highly regarded Bay Delta plan recommends. This is a challenge for all of us to work together for what is a new emerging order rather than limited biased thinking. Health for the whole system is essential for today and tomorrow.

3 people like this
Posted by Deborah
a resident of another community
on May 3, 2019 at 10:56 am

This opinion piece is right on target; PA Online, thank you for publishing it! Neighbors, if you agree with this viewpoint, please take a moment to sign this petition: Web Link

2 people like this
Posted by Resident11
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 3, 2019 at 11:39 am

Resident11 is a registered user.

Thank you, Peter, for this excellent and informative writeup. Yes, we have to consider the Earth as a first party and not an afterthought when it comes to resource use. And yes, we should support the use of more recycled water, when the water goes to environmental benefits. And yes yes yes, we need to get a handle on growth, so that we are not harming the planet even more in order to support unsustainable growth. Let's try to get SFPUC and Valley Water to understand that we all need to live in balance.

5 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on May 3, 2019 at 11:50 am

"Members of the Santa Clara Valley Water Board and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission are working against common good to promote the interests of a handful."

Yes, but recognize that the handful has money and knows how to use it to get more money. Pay very close attention to who you vote for.

3 people like this
Posted by Well said, Peter.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 3, 2019 at 1:06 pm

Well said, Peter. is a registered user.

Thank you for this excellent piece...and your ongoing work on water issues, Peter.

17 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 3, 2019 at 2:08 pm

Just a little reminder that when we conserve too much water trying to do our part, PA Utilities RAISES water rates and explicitly claims it's because we didn't use enough water. Lather, rinse, repeat.

13 people like this
Posted by Waste Not...Want Not
a resident of Community Center
on May 3, 2019 at 2:17 pm

So we conserve precious water (which is a sound idea & I support the concept fully) while the people in Southern California and big Agra in the San Joaquin Valley continue to waste it?

Why not ration them as well? SoCal & the farmlands already have the advantages of the Aqueduct.

5 people like this
Posted by Dave Warner
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 3, 2019 at 6:39 pm

In my opinion significant Southern California urban areas have passed or will be passing the Bay Area in reducing their water imports and they are way ahead of us on using recycled water. Today I was lucky enough to tour Orange County’s Groundwater recycling system, the largest in the world, recycling 100 million gallons a day for drinking water and soon growing to 130 million gallons a day, representing about a third of their water supply. What a great way to reduce the need for imported water and improve drought resilience. Some time ago Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti set the goal of reducing their water imports from 85% of supply to 50% of supply. More recently he set a goal of recycling as much wastewater as possible. San Diego has said that they plan to get 35% of their supply from recycled water. Santa Monica will be relying solely on local water within the next four years. The SFPUC? No plans to reduce imports below 85% of their supply and so far no plans for recycled drinking water. The Santa Clara Valley Water District (now Valley Water) has taken some good initial steps but no where close to the Southern California cities mentioned. We’d like to catch up and get ahead of these Southern California cities in reducing the need for imported water in part by making big strides in growing our use of recycled water. Great for the environment and great for water reliability during a drought!

2 people like this
Posted by Katie Bramlett
a resident of Downtown North
on May 3, 2019 at 8:36 pm

I support the State Water Board’s proposal, which aims to achieve the co-equal goals of ensuring a reliable water supply AND protecting and restoring the environment. Palo Alto has a strong, proud history of standing on the side of ecological conservation! We are in a position to make a difference.

Web Link

3 people like this
Posted by Susan
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 3, 2019 at 10:22 pm

Peter has thought this through so well. The Bay Area is fortunate to have him leading the way to better water use. Signing the petition to ask Valley Water to drop the law suit will help. Web Link.

1 person likes this
Posted by Katherine
a resident of another community
on May 4, 2019 at 4:31 am

Thanks for pointing out the inaccurate basis of Valley Water's current position.

We can no longer act as if fresh water is an endless resource.

I support the State's Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan, which would increase unimpaired flows to the Tuolumne -- and ensure enough water for salmon as well as water for the Valley Water service area.

I urge Valley Water to end its lawsuit (petition):
Web Link

and urge Palo Alto to suspend discussions with Valley Water until lawsuit is dropped.

7 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 4, 2019 at 6:14 am

mauricio is a registered user.

California simply doesn't have enough water, and never will, to support its existing population and agribusiness demand. The plans to continue to bring in more people into the state is literally suicidal. Thinking locally, the pro development lobby plans, which envisions squeezing so many more new residents into the area is a recipe for an unmitigated environmental catastrophe.

5 people like this
Posted by Ming Le
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on May 4, 2019 at 9:10 am

Is recycled water also for drinking purposes?

I don't particularly like the thought of regenerated sewage & urine being used for this purpose. OK for watering plants though.

2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 4, 2019 at 1:18 pm

I'm completely in favor of provisioning adequate water through the delta to support California native species and fisheries. However, beyond that, I think a mixing some supply and demand into the water rights picture would help. For example, if the beef industry was required to pay market rates for water for cattle forage, a lot less beef would be grown in California and a lot more beef would be imported from the Midwest, leaving the water for uses here that people are willing to pay a premium for. Agriculture, industry, and consumers get very disjointed feedback from prices, because of all the subsidies built in to water pricing today.

Palo Alto, and every city, would be wise to start looking hard at water rights for the future. Water is only going to get more and more expensive and scarce in California. In some cases, water rights are getting purchased apparently as investments in which the owners expect a substantial ROI, not because of any current use for the water. That should be worrisome.

3 people like this
Posted by Jeralyn Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on May 4, 2019 at 4:16 pm

Thank you Peter Drekmeier for offering a clear message r.e. the importance of balancing the human consumption of water resources in this Ecosystem we live in, while respecting the same Ecosystem's need to sustain itself. It is a sad day if we let this chance pass by to right this wrong of over-draw from the Tuolumne river -- it is documented that residents willingly conserve water if the effort benefits the Natural Environment; Valley Water must drop this misguided lawsuit - the hard-won compromise known as the SF Bay Delta Plan must be put into action now.

2 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 4, 2019 at 4:38 pm

One of the long-standing attractions/assets/attractions of Palo Alto is being on fresh “Hetch Hetchy water.” This has been the case for many decades, though in recent years, ground water and etc. (?) have been mixed in. We have paid lots for being on Hetch Hetchy water.
Haven’t we Palo Altans also paid to upgrade the Hetch Hetchy system!?
Why should *San Francisco* continue with fresh Hetch Hetchy water while WE get recycled/treated water?
I have lived with San Jose water in the past (in the South Bay) and I don’t recommend it.
I disagree with hasty changes.

Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 4, 2019 at 4:39 pm

Sorry for the repeated word: meant to write “assets.” Please don’t flame me.

4 people like this
Posted by To Hell With SoCal
a resident of Barron Park
on May 4, 2019 at 6:30 pm

Fresh, unadulterated drinking water should be the right of every American citizen.

The bottled water companies are making a small fortune off these compromises.

The aquaduct which was implemented for the sole benefit of SoCal and the Central Valley is environmentally WRONG and destroying native fish.

Let Southern Calfornia & the San Joaquin Valley recycle water on their own even if it means converting sea water to practical usage. We don't owe them JACK.

Like this comment
Posted by Carol Steinfeld
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on May 5, 2019 at 7:34 pm

Absolutely. We need to diversify our water supply. I'm glad Peter and Tuolomne Trust are navigating the complex politics and policies around the water we import.

1 person likes this
Posted by David Ragland
a resident of another community
on May 6, 2019 at 10:59 am

The short-sighted cycles of hoarding and dumping look like they're designed to minimize the habitat value of the water available. The dams need oversight from someone with interests of everyone, not just irrigation districts and developers, in mind.

7 people like this
Posted by Evian Girl
a resident of Barron Park
on May 6, 2019 at 7:00 pm

Who wants to drink recycled water?

Purified urine?


2 people like this
Posted by Make fewer people.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 8, 2019 at 2:58 pm

Make fewer people. is a registered user.

Creating smaller human families will make a better world.

8 people like this
Posted by Space Oddity
a resident of Midtown
on May 9, 2019 at 6:43 pm

The astronauts drink purified urine on extended space flights.

If it's good enough for NASA, it's good enough for Palo Altans.

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

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