Seeking to fortify the city against future droughts, the Palo Alto City Council endorsed on Monday a long-term agreement with Santa Clara Valley Water District and Mountain View to build a salt-removal plant in the Baylands and then transfer the treated wastewater south.
Under the 76-year deal, Valley Water would have 13 years to build the $20-million plant, toward which it would contribute $16 million. Until the plant is built, the district would pay $200,000 annually to the partner agencies in the Regional Water Quality Control Plant: Palo Alto, Mountain View, Stanford University, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and the East Palo Alto Sanitary District.
After the plant is up and running, the city would be obligated to sell about half of the treated effluent to Valley Water for use south of Mountain View. The water district expects to further purify this water, making it potable, and then inject it directly into its treated water system.
The council, which had previously expressed support for the agreement, voted 6-0, with Vice Mayor Adrian Fine absent, to seal the deal, which will also allow Palo Alto to tap into Valley Water's water supply for the first time. Today, the city is one of about two dozen Peninsula municipalities that rely on the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission for its potable water, which comes from the Tuolomne River in Yosemite. Under the deal, Palo Alto and Mountain View will each have the option of notifying Valley Water that they need additional water. The water district would then present an offer and, provided the cities agree, Valley Water will have 10 years to deliver it.
Phil Bobel, assistant director of Public Works, cited the environmental benefits of signing the agreement and proceeding with the plan to build the plant, which includes reducing the countywide reliance on imported water and reducing the amount of water from the Tuolomne River that is used for irrigation.
"We'd be substituting it and using the water we produce locally as enhanced non-potable water that would reduce the irrigation use of Tuolomne River water, saving it," Bobel said.
It would also improve the quality of the treated wastewater, lowering the salt content and allaying concerns about the impact of wastewater on redwood trees and other sensitive species, Bobel said.
Today, the city dumps about 95% of its treated wastewater into the Bay. The remainder is used for irrigation and toilet flushing in Palo Alto and Mountain View. By reducing the salt content in this water, the plant will allow the city to expand its usage of treated wastewater and allow 60 commercial customers in Mountain View to connect to the system.
Councilman Tom DuBois, who sits on the Joint Recycled Water Advisory Committee, touted the agreement as a good deal for the city, which will receive $16 million in investment from another agency as well as increased protection from future droughts.
"We get some water robustness through this water supply," DuBois said. "More recycled water is good for the region in general."
Others agreed and praised staff from all of the involved agencies for reaching a deal after more than a year of negotiations. Councilwoman Alison Cormack called the deal an important "first step" to prepare for a future where the city may have water shortages. Some residents, she noted, have raised concerns about the length of the contract — a concern that she said was legitimate. Yet she also touted the benefit of having an alternative supply source thanks to the new purchase option that Palo Alto and Mountain View would be receiving.
Councilman Greg Tanaka was more skeptical, but after listing all the costs and benefits that the city would incur as a result of this deal, he threw his support behind the deal. He was particularly pleased by the fact that the city would have full ownership of the plant, despite Valley Water's significant funding contribution.
For Valley Water, the small salt-removing plant is just an early step in a more ambitious plan to expand the usage of recycled water. The district has a goal of developing enough water reuse projects to supply about 10% of the county's water needs by 2025.
Not everyone was convinced that the city is getting a good deal. Resident Dave Warner cited the rising value of local wastewater and argued that the city should negotiate a better deal with Valley Water.
"We shouldn't think of this as wastewater," resident Dave Warner said. "Remarkably, our effluent is a precious local source of sustainable, drought-resistant water. It's being snapped up all over the state. That's why Valley Water is trying to tie us up, giving them the option of our effluent."
The Mountain View City Council voted unanimously to join the regional partnership on Monday night with little discussion. Once built, the city is expected to ramp up recycled water use from 400,000 gallons per day to 1 million.
The Santa Clara Valley Water District's board of directors is scheduled to consider final approval of the deal at a Dec. 10 meeting.