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Going against the flow, City Council member draws rebukes for position on water plan

Critics charge Alison Cormack for failing to accurately present city's stance on Bay-Delta Plan

Wapama Falls, far left, flows into the 117 billion gallon capacity Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite, the source of 85% of Palo Alto's water supply. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

When Palo Alto officials adopted a position in 2018 in support of the Bay-Delta Plan, which aims to protect the Yosemite ecosystem by restricting how much water cities can draw from the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, they knew were swimming against the prevalent political tide.

Prompted by water conservationists and environmentalists, the City Council went against recommendations from the city's Utilities Department staff and its water supplier, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which relies on the Tuolumne River for much of its water. It also defied the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, a coalition of 27 municipal agencies that buy water from the SFPUC.

Now, the city's appointee to BAWSCA, City Council member Alison Cormack, is drawing criticism from some of these same environmentalists after she took a stance that they say contradicts Palo Alto's official position. Rather than endorsing the council's 2018 position, Cormack publicly backed on Nov. 30 the position of the water suppliers, who have criticized the Bay-Delta Plan's flow restrictions as a threat to their water supply.

The plan, which targets the San Joaquin River and its three tributaries, the Stanislaus, Merced and Tuolumne rivers, requires the "unimpaired flow" at these rivers to be at least 40% between February and June to protect salmon, steelhead trout and other species that rely on the rivers.

Conservationist groups, including the Tuolumne River Trust, said the plan is necessary to protect the environment and dismiss the allegations from the SFPUC and other water supply agencies as "scare tactics."

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That debate resurfaced on Nov. 30, when the SFPUC held a workshop to discuss the Bay-Delta Plan, which the state Water Resources Control Board officially adopted in December 2018. BAWSCA CEO Nicole Sandkulla told the commission at the workshop that the Bay-Delta Plan could result in a loss of 90 million gallons per day of water, potentially requiring a 50% reduction of water for residents in BAWSCA's service area.

"Losing that much supply would severely impact people and businesses at communities that rely on the system," Sandkulla said.

Peter Drekmeier, a former Palo Alto mayor who serves as policy director at Tuolumne River Trust, pushed back against these figures. He said BAWSCA is not serving its constituents by opposing a plan that seeks to protect the river's ecosystem.

"Saying that they care about the Bay Delta ecosystems but doing very little to improve conditions and putting out an alarming number, which we've shown to be false, like 50% rationing, does not serve the public interest," Drekmeier said at the workshop.

Cormack, who serves on BAWSCA's board of directors, also spoke at that meeting. But far from channeling the council's adopted position in 2018, she echoed her BAWSCA colleagues in supporting "voluntary agreements" between the state board and water suppliers. These measures would allow water agencies to SFPUC to avoid the 40% requirement by committing to other measures that don't address water flow, including habitat restoration. The Tuolumne River Voluntary Agreement, she said, is "ready to go and will improve the habitat for salmonids."

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"A voluntary agreement will be much better and ultimately more acceptable than a forced legal resolution for all who rely on the Tuolumne River," Cormack said in a prepared statement at the Nov. 30 meeting. "This is actually an opportunity to lead the way in California, since we are far from the only region in the state that faces this issue."

Her position sparked an immediate backlash among local supporters of the Bay-Delta Plan. Hours after the workshop, Drekmeier attended the council's virtual meeting and asked how it's possible for the council to take a position in favor of a plan, only to have a single member take an opposing position and support another plan.

"It's unconscionable," Drekmeier told the council. "It's clear the science supports exactly what Palo Alto endorsed two years ago and I hope you revisit this. It looks really bad when Palo Alto is represented in front of the commission and saying the opposite of what was voted on two years ago."

Earlier this month, Drekmeier took his comments a step further when he submitted a letter to Mayor Tom DuBois and the council requesting that Cormack be replaced as a city representative.

"Palo Alto deserves a representative who respects and advocates for the City's official position on issues such as the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan," Drekmeier wrote. "Council Member Cormack has failed to do so."

Other residents echoed his sentiment. Stephen Rosenbloom said he was shocked when he heard Cormack speak at the workshop in favor of voluntary agreements, given the council's officially adopted position. Her statement, he told the council on Jan. 11, should "disqualify her as a representative of the Palo Alto City Council on BAWSCA, since she refused to separate the official position of the City Council from her own beliefs."

David Warner, a resident who supports the Bay-Delta Plan, called Cormack's statement "a step backward" and said he was taken aback by her comments.

"Council member Cormack should either vigorously retract her statements verbally, in front of SFPUC, and reiterate Palo Alto's position or she should resign from the BAWSCA board," Warner said.

Cormack emphasized that in taking a position in favor of voluntary agreements, she was acting as a representative of BAWSCA rather than of the council. Even though her statement identified her as a council member, she emailed the commission on Dec. 18 to clarify that she was speaking as a BAWSCA director rather than a council member and to apologize for the omission.

"I absolutely made a mistake in not making it clear. That was brought to my attention and I promptly corrected the record in writing," Cormack told this news organization.

Her position on the Bay-Delta Plan, however, hasn't changed. She said she doesn't oppose the plan, which she noted includes provisions for voluntary agreements. The state Water Board in fact approved a resolution in December 2018 that encourages stakeholders to "continue to work together to reach voluntary agreements that incorporate a mix of flow and non-flow measures that meet or exceed the new and revised water quality objectives and protect fish and wildlife beneficial uses, and to present those voluntary agreements to the State Water Board for its review as soon as possible."

Yet in its July analysis of non-flow measures, the Water Board noted that "substantial scientific evidence indicates that reductions in flow and alteration of the natural flow regime resulting from water development has been a major driver of historic declines of native fish populations and a major impediment to the restoration of salmon populations in the San Joaquin River and other Central Valley watersheds."

Non-flow measures alone, the analysis states, "are not sufficient to support and maintain viable populations of native fish populations."

"Actions like creating habitat, modifying structures, or enhancing channel forms are often relatively short-term solutions, requiring repeated application and/or maintenance in order to continue to provide benefits, and do not address restoration of key watershed- or river-scale regulating processes," the Water Board's analysis states.

Palo Alto City Council member Alison Cormack favors the Bay-Delta Plan's incorporation of voluntary agreements. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

While Cormack said she favors the Bay-Delta Plan's incorporation of voluntary agreements, she is far less enthusiastic about the portion of the plan that the 2018 council and environmentalists like Drekmeier and Warner see as its most critical components: a requirement for unimpaired flow. When asked about her position on the 40% requirement for unimpaired flow, Cormack said that she had learned over the past two years that "non-flow measures" can help achieve the desired environmental benefits.

"In the same way that I support amending the proposed voluntary agreement to improve outcomes, I could support the Bay-Delta Plan with amendments that include and consider non-flow measures," Cormack said. "This is one way to balance the needs of water users for reliable supplies with improvements in the ecosystem of the river."

Cormack also made a public statement at the council's Dec. 14 meeting underscoring that that her comments at the SFPUC workshop did not constitute opposition to the Bay-Delta Plan and did not conflict with council policy on this issue. She also told her colleagues that when the council appoints a BAWSCA director, that person "does not serve as an instrument of our municipal interests but as steward of the 26 member agencies" and the nearly 2 million customers they serve.

"I'm working hard to find an intersection between Palo Alto's current position and my responsibility as a BAWSCA director," Cormack told the Weekly.

While her colleagues hadn't taken any actions to replace Cormack as the city's BAWSCA appointee, some residents remain unconvinced by her explanation. David Schrom suggested in a Jan. 8 letter that if Cormack was representing her BAWSCA colleagues in her comments at the workshop, she should have at least clarified that Palo Alto rejected voluntary agreements in favor of the Bay-Delta Plan. If she did not speak at the behest of BAWSCA, Schrom wrote, then her "flagrant disregard and implicit misrepresentation are sufficient reason for you to find another of your members to represent you, me and other Palo Altans on the BAWSCA board."

"If we're to reap the benefits of your past and future decisions made on the basis of extensive review of applicable science, we need an advocate who understands the responsibilities of fully and accurately upholding those decisions," Schrom wrote.

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Going against the flow, City Council member draws rebukes for position on water plan

Critics charge Alison Cormack for failing to accurately present city's stance on Bay-Delta Plan

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Thu, Jan 28, 2021, 8:33 am

When Palo Alto officials adopted a position in 2018 in support of the Bay-Delta Plan, which aims to protect the Yosemite ecosystem by restricting how much water cities can draw from the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, they knew were swimming against the prevalent political tide.

Prompted by water conservationists and environmentalists, the City Council went against recommendations from the city's Utilities Department staff and its water supplier, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which relies on the Tuolumne River for much of its water. It also defied the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, a coalition of 27 municipal agencies that buy water from the SFPUC.

Now, the city's appointee to BAWSCA, City Council member Alison Cormack, is drawing criticism from some of these same environmentalists after she took a stance that they say contradicts Palo Alto's official position. Rather than endorsing the council's 2018 position, Cormack publicly backed on Nov. 30 the position of the water suppliers, who have criticized the Bay-Delta Plan's flow restrictions as a threat to their water supply.

The plan, which targets the San Joaquin River and its three tributaries, the Stanislaus, Merced and Tuolumne rivers, requires the "unimpaired flow" at these rivers to be at least 40% between February and June to protect salmon, steelhead trout and other species that rely on the rivers.

Conservationist groups, including the Tuolumne River Trust, said the plan is necessary to protect the environment and dismiss the allegations from the SFPUC and other water supply agencies as "scare tactics."

That debate resurfaced on Nov. 30, when the SFPUC held a workshop to discuss the Bay-Delta Plan, which the state Water Resources Control Board officially adopted in December 2018. BAWSCA CEO Nicole Sandkulla told the commission at the workshop that the Bay-Delta Plan could result in a loss of 90 million gallons per day of water, potentially requiring a 50% reduction of water for residents in BAWSCA's service area.

"Losing that much supply would severely impact people and businesses at communities that rely on the system," Sandkulla said.

Peter Drekmeier, a former Palo Alto mayor who serves as policy director at Tuolumne River Trust, pushed back against these figures. He said BAWSCA is not serving its constituents by opposing a plan that seeks to protect the river's ecosystem.

"Saying that they care about the Bay Delta ecosystems but doing very little to improve conditions and putting out an alarming number, which we've shown to be false, like 50% rationing, does not serve the public interest," Drekmeier said at the workshop.

Cormack, who serves on BAWSCA's board of directors, also spoke at that meeting. But far from channeling the council's adopted position in 2018, she echoed her BAWSCA colleagues in supporting "voluntary agreements" between the state board and water suppliers. These measures would allow water agencies to SFPUC to avoid the 40% requirement by committing to other measures that don't address water flow, including habitat restoration. The Tuolumne River Voluntary Agreement, she said, is "ready to go and will improve the habitat for salmonids."

"A voluntary agreement will be much better and ultimately more acceptable than a forced legal resolution for all who rely on the Tuolumne River," Cormack said in a prepared statement at the Nov. 30 meeting. "This is actually an opportunity to lead the way in California, since we are far from the only region in the state that faces this issue."

Her position sparked an immediate backlash among local supporters of the Bay-Delta Plan. Hours after the workshop, Drekmeier attended the council's virtual meeting and asked how it's possible for the council to take a position in favor of a plan, only to have a single member take an opposing position and support another plan.

"It's unconscionable," Drekmeier told the council. "It's clear the science supports exactly what Palo Alto endorsed two years ago and I hope you revisit this. It looks really bad when Palo Alto is represented in front of the commission and saying the opposite of what was voted on two years ago."

Earlier this month, Drekmeier took his comments a step further when he submitted a letter to Mayor Tom DuBois and the council requesting that Cormack be replaced as a city representative.

"Palo Alto deserves a representative who respects and advocates for the City's official position on issues such as the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan," Drekmeier wrote. "Council Member Cormack has failed to do so."

Other residents echoed his sentiment. Stephen Rosenbloom said he was shocked when he heard Cormack speak at the workshop in favor of voluntary agreements, given the council's officially adopted position. Her statement, he told the council on Jan. 11, should "disqualify her as a representative of the Palo Alto City Council on BAWSCA, since she refused to separate the official position of the City Council from her own beliefs."

David Warner, a resident who supports the Bay-Delta Plan, called Cormack's statement "a step backward" and said he was taken aback by her comments.

"Council member Cormack should either vigorously retract her statements verbally, in front of SFPUC, and reiterate Palo Alto's position or she should resign from the BAWSCA board," Warner said.

Cormack emphasized that in taking a position in favor of voluntary agreements, she was acting as a representative of BAWSCA rather than of the council. Even though her statement identified her as a council member, she emailed the commission on Dec. 18 to clarify that she was speaking as a BAWSCA director rather than a council member and to apologize for the omission.

"I absolutely made a mistake in not making it clear. That was brought to my attention and I promptly corrected the record in writing," Cormack told this news organization.

Her position on the Bay-Delta Plan, however, hasn't changed. She said she doesn't oppose the plan, which she noted includes provisions for voluntary agreements. The state Water Board in fact approved a resolution in December 2018 that encourages stakeholders to "continue to work together to reach voluntary agreements that incorporate a mix of flow and non-flow measures that meet or exceed the new and revised water quality objectives and protect fish and wildlife beneficial uses, and to present those voluntary agreements to the State Water Board for its review as soon as possible."

Yet in its July analysis of non-flow measures, the Water Board noted that "substantial scientific evidence indicates that reductions in flow and alteration of the natural flow regime resulting from water development has been a major driver of historic declines of native fish populations and a major impediment to the restoration of salmon populations in the San Joaquin River and other Central Valley watersheds."

Non-flow measures alone, the analysis states, "are not sufficient to support and maintain viable populations of native fish populations."

"Actions like creating habitat, modifying structures, or enhancing channel forms are often relatively short-term solutions, requiring repeated application and/or maintenance in order to continue to provide benefits, and do not address restoration of key watershed- or river-scale regulating processes," the Water Board's analysis states.

While Cormack said she favors the Bay-Delta Plan's incorporation of voluntary agreements, she is far less enthusiastic about the portion of the plan that the 2018 council and environmentalists like Drekmeier and Warner see as its most critical components: a requirement for unimpaired flow. When asked about her position on the 40% requirement for unimpaired flow, Cormack said that she had learned over the past two years that "non-flow measures" can help achieve the desired environmental benefits.

"In the same way that I support amending the proposed voluntary agreement to improve outcomes, I could support the Bay-Delta Plan with amendments that include and consider non-flow measures," Cormack said. "This is one way to balance the needs of water users for reliable supplies with improvements in the ecosystem of the river."

Cormack also made a public statement at the council's Dec. 14 meeting underscoring that that her comments at the SFPUC workshop did not constitute opposition to the Bay-Delta Plan and did not conflict with council policy on this issue. She also told her colleagues that when the council appoints a BAWSCA director, that person "does not serve as an instrument of our municipal interests but as steward of the 26 member agencies" and the nearly 2 million customers they serve.

"I'm working hard to find an intersection between Palo Alto's current position and my responsibility as a BAWSCA director," Cormack told the Weekly.

While her colleagues hadn't taken any actions to replace Cormack as the city's BAWSCA appointee, some residents remain unconvinced by her explanation. David Schrom suggested in a Jan. 8 letter that if Cormack was representing her BAWSCA colleagues in her comments at the workshop, she should have at least clarified that Palo Alto rejected voluntary agreements in favor of the Bay-Delta Plan. If she did not speak at the behest of BAWSCA, Schrom wrote, then her "flagrant disregard and implicit misrepresentation are sufficient reason for you to find another of your members to represent you, me and other Palo Altans on the BAWSCA board."

"If we're to reap the benefits of your past and future decisions made on the basis of extensive review of applicable science, we need an advocate who understands the responsibilities of fully and accurately upholding those decisions," Schrom wrote.

Comments

MBH
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 28, 2021 at 10:32 am
MBH, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Jan 28, 2021 at 10:32 am

You will be happy to know that our new nominee for Secretary of Commerce, Gina Raimondo, has actually gone on record as wanting to do everything possible to preserve natural habitat for Salmon up and down the West Coast. Even including the removal of dams in states north of California. This may well have an effect on the distribution of water from the various dams on various CA rivers. Scientists have been in agreement that unimpaired flow is a necessary ingredient for Salmon populations to thrive, and even grow to the point of being a viable industry again. This appears to be in direct conflict with Cormack's position. So it would be interesting to know from where she got her information that low flow was an acceptable solution.


Observer
Registered user
Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jan 28, 2021 at 10:56 am
Observer, Leland Manor/Garland Drive
Registered user
on Jan 28, 2021 at 10:56 am

Looks like Cormack is taking up the devious practices of our former mayor Fine - putting forth personal viewpoints that differ from those of the PACC while operating under the guise of representing Palo Alto. Birds of a feather, just like their earlier attempts at lame-duck appointments to city commissions.


Not Good Enough
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 28, 2021 at 11:46 am
Not Good Enough, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jan 28, 2021 at 11:46 am

There was no need for Cormack to make her statement or submit her letter at the Nov. 30 meeting, contradicting her City's policy. Her actions were optional and at her initiative. She could and should have simply remained silent rather than sell out her City. Taking 2 1/2 weeks after the fact to clarify she was speaking for herself, and only after being criticized is not my idea of "prompt". She has not apologized for the substance of what she did.

She is our Representative to the BAWSCA Board, yet disagrees with a key City water policy that is environmentally forward thinking, backed by science and an example of Palo Alto's leadership. This is greatly problematic. Cormack should have the good sense to step down or be removed. Three more years of her arrogance and poor judgment on BAWSCA will be too unpredictable and detrimental given she sees her role as completely independent from the City.

Also, our Council should emulate Santa Clara and Menlo Park and limit the terms of our Regional Representatives to their terms on the Council.


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 28, 2021 at 12:19 pm
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Jan 28, 2021 at 12:19 pm

WOW - it just keeps happening. I listen to McCormack on the PACC meetings and she has no specific points and goals - just circuitous statements that can be taken any way. Like waiting to see which way the wind is blowing. She is not to be trusted to conduct any business on behalf of the city. Not sure where this all goes but now the red flags are blowing.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 28, 2021 at 12:37 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jan 28, 2021 at 12:37 pm

"WOW - it just keeps happening. I listen to McCormack on the PACC meetings and she has no specific points and goals - just circuitous statements that can be taken any way."

Not sure about that. Her goals seem to be rewarding her backers and spending the money on big-ticket projects when we're supposedly broke. Just look at her advocacy for fiber to the home. Someone -- ie high-priced consultants -- would clearly clearly benefit although it's totally unrealistic for the city to compete with established commercial providers.


rita vrhel
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jan 28, 2021 at 12:39 pm
rita vrhel, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jan 28, 2021 at 12:39 pm

Any representative from the PACC should represent the views of the PACC. As As Ms McCormack is on the Board because of her PACC appointment; she should represent the Council's decisions and views, not her on.

Using her Board position to state her personal views is inappropriate. Perhaps she should resign or be removed and join the audience where she can state her personal views. Is this why she was removed from the VTA slot?

Oh, and on the water. As I walk in Crescent Park, I see many neighbors who are watering their front yards 3 x's a week. To the point of water all over the sidewalk, and in the street gutter. I would rather sustain the rivers and wildlife than have the precious water wasted on green lawns. There is never enough for some people. It all will be wasted until here is no more.

Can we also please discuss the millions of gallons of groundwater that are extracted and wasted during underground construction. Palo Alto's current regulations are useless.

Thank you Gennady and Peter!



I


Name hidden
Downtown North

Registered user
on Jan 28, 2021 at 3:41 pm
Name hidden, Downtown North

Registered user
on Jan 28, 2021 at 3:41 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?


Rose
Registered user
Mayfield
on Jan 28, 2021 at 6:07 pm
Rose, Mayfield
Registered user
on Jan 28, 2021 at 6:07 pm

I agree with the comments above that are asking to have Cormack replaced on the BAWSCA board. She should resign or the City Council should replace her. We expect more from our City Council members.


Name hidden
Downtown North

Registered user
on Jan 28, 2021 at 7:19 pm
Name hidden, Downtown North

Registered user
on Jan 28, 2021 at 7:19 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?


ALB
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jan 30, 2021 at 1:10 pm
ALB, College Terrace
Registered user
on Jan 30, 2021 at 1:10 pm

Council member Cormack is out of her depth concerning the environmental policy that the Palo Alto City Council has agreed upon. Why would she turn around and do this disservice? Is it ambition to please corporate interests? She is serving on the BAWSCA board representing Palo Alto as a designated council member. It is time to have the council remove her from BAWSCA as she does not espouse the policy already in place. I see Cormack as an ambitious player who does not follow the rules. She has shown her true colors and cannot represent constituents of Palo Alto regarding this critical environmental issue.


Paige
Registered user
another community
on Jan 31, 2021 at 2:05 pm
Paige, another community
Registered user
on Jan 31, 2021 at 2:05 pm

BAWSCA and Alison Cormack are out of their lane when they claim to be our legislative advocates on the Bay Delta Plan.

Under the terms of State Assembly bill AB2058 that formed BAWSCA, "Membership of a public entity in [BAWSCA] does not affect the identity ... nor impair the powers of that ... entity."

BAWSCA has no "intersecting" power that supersedes a Palo Alto power. Specifically, membership in BAWSCA does not impair the power of Palo Alto to act as legislative advocate for its citizens, on any matter, including state environmental water policy and the Bay Delta Plan.

More to the point, Alison Cormack doesn't have two conflicting roles, because she doesn't have two masters. As Palo Alto's appointee she serves wholly at the pleasure of a majority of the Palo Alto City Council. Her role is whatever they say it is. And, until they rein her in she's free to go and stay rogue.

Cormack's real role is to push BAWSCA to find new water sources. It's always been BAWSCA's main legal charter to ensure water supply, from inside or outside California, independently of the SFPUC, if necessary.


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