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.