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City Council rejects proposal to sell Palo Alto's water rights

Original post made on Feb 1, 2022

A proposal by two City Council members to sell some of Palo Alto's unused water rights to another city fell flat on Monday, with most of their colleagues indicating they would not back the ambitious plan.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, February 1, 2022, 9:46 AM

Comments (29)

Posted by peppered
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 1, 2022 at 10:23 am

peppered is a registered user.

Thanks to Mayor Burt and Councilmember Cormack for a forward looking proposal.
As for the rest of the Council, what a bunch of laggards.

Posted by tmp
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 1, 2022 at 10:35 am

tmp is a registered user.

I'm proud that our city council did the right thing and refused to give water to enable more developments that threaten this area. We don't need to "water" developments that will add tens of thousands of new jobs to this area and further the destruction of the environment. The city of Palo Alto has taken the enlightened stand that we will not build more office space in one of the most overcrowded and polluted areas of the state. The rest of the cities in this area needs to get on board. All of these massive developments are only making our problems worse. More people, more pollution and more building at the edge of the bay in the face of rising sea levels and diminishing water supplies makes no sense. Don't sell or give away our water to further development, leave it in the rivers and streams where it will do the most good.

Posted by Consider Your Options.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 1, 2022 at 10:57 am

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

As the state pushes Palo Alto to build many thousands of housing units, we consider selling fresh water rights to invest in recycling water. I support recycling water for many uses, but the fresh water we enjoy today is a precious resource.

The value of fresh water will only increase. While it may be tempting to fill budget gaps right now with this sale, it is the wrong time for that. I have been reading about water use planning and water legislation over the history of the opening and development of the west. The west is headed toward a major period of legal conflict in the area of water rights. Entering this period with some resource leverage probably will be a good thing.

That said, I still support Council's past decision to transfer water to East Palo Alto. That was the right thing to do to help our neighbors.

Posted by rita vrhel
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 1, 2022 at 11:48 am

rita vrhel is a registered user.

Dear City Council: thank you for rejecting this proposal.

Ms Cormack......please take a walk with me any Monday in Crescent Park (and likely other neighborhoods where i do not walk) and i will show you show you so much water waste! In the gutters, driveways, sidewalks. Over spray for narrow parkways, and leaking / inappropriately installed sprinklers.

Having less water will not change people's habits. Charging more for water just means those that have money to spare, can water their yards with abandon. Most are responsible but many are not.

An excellent point about the 6,000 (?) new "homes" we are "mandated" to add in PA; that will mean many more people needing more water. What then? Where do we get the required water?

What happens if out water allotment is cut...permanently. As water becomes scarcer; all allotments may be reduced. Can't count on water allotments remaining the same if there is less water available. Do we then pump and drain the aquifers and collapse our City?

Aren't we planning on building an expense plant to convert sewage water to drinking water? And at the same time we consider selling our Hetch Hetchy water allotment rights?

We need to plan for our future which includes a growing population requiring additional water.

Again, thank you City Council for a wise decision.

Posted by Eric Filseth
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 1, 2022 at 12:44 pm

Eric Filseth is a registered user.

Some folks will take this as impossibly high-level, but it’s not intended as a critique of this proposal or any individual city’s ISG, it’s meant as a broader process observation.

There’s only so much water in California, and it’s split between three buckets: an Environment bucket, an Agriculture bucket, and a People (ie cities) bucket. The Agriculture bucket is the big bucket as everybody knows.

State policy is to bring millions more people to California; that’s why the HCD/RHNA numbers are what they are. You can favor or oppose that policy, but it’s the Plan of Record, and the PoR is the PoR until there’s a new PoR. Those new Californians will need water. Assuming we don’t raid the Environment bucket, either the People bucket needs to keep getting split more ways, or else water needs to move from the Ag bucket to the People bucket.

California water politics and infrastructure make the latter difficult (though apparently the Brisbane developer tried Web Link ), but infinitely splitting the People bucket is impossible. Barring a change in state population policy, the great Agriculture-vs-Cities realignment must eventually happen. Each time we split the People bucket just a little bit more (as this proposal would have), everybody uses just a little bit less, in order to postpone that inevitable day.

To say the State has not taken a holistic, long-term view of this matter is an understatement of galactic magnitude.

In the meantime, obviously we’re not literally taking the water that People conserve, driving it out to the central valley, and pouring it on almond trees. But from a high enough level, that’s essentially what continuing to split the People bucket does. Water in California is a zero-sum resource. If you believe the State’s population will grow indefinitely, then eventually People water must start coming from the Ag bucket (or the Environment bucket).

Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Feb 1, 2022 at 4:15 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

If you'd like more insight into ag water usage, I recommend "The Dreamt Land" by Mark Arax very highly. One of the points it makes is that ag water usage is already far, far beyond sustainable levels. More Central Valley land is going to have to be fallowed, even if there are no new transfers from ag to urban areas. The only thing that would prevent this is huge amounts of new storage, hence the recent initiative proposal primarily funded by Central Valley ag interests.

From the numbers in Mark's book, it looks to me like converting some Central Valley land from ag to urban would yield a decrease in total water usage. Interesting.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 1, 2022 at 5:39 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Thanks for rejecting this greedy money grab from one of the city's most vocal advocates of growth. Per capital usage continues to drop while overall usage is up due to population growth. It will keep soaring as the Bay Area struggles to accommodate the 1,000,000 new residents mandated by ABAG.

How much MORE does Ms. Cormac expect us to cut to accommodate them?

Sure, water has value -- just like most things. So what?? Realtors call us non-stop trying to buy our homes but just because there's a buyer doesn't mean there's a seller.

Instead of raising more money to fuel MORE spending, how about reducing spending and living within our means instead of selling off our future?

Posted by rita vrhel
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 1, 2022 at 7:07 pm

rita vrhel is a registered user.

I could not agree more with the last 3 posts. Seems like the common thread is living within our means rather than continued growth and expansion. Resources are limited. The impact on our environment is always underestimated.

Never sell your water right! Or your body parts. You will need both in the future.

Giving a small amount of water to EPA was, IMO, the ethical decision.

Selling it for additional development, which will negatively impact us all, is not.

And what would PA government do with the money? Likely continue to live beyond their means, take on more debt, hock additional city property , grow the unfunded portion of our employee's pensions. Add additional staff in the City Manager's office.

It is time to make hard choices and live within our means.

Thank you.

Posted by James
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 1, 2022 at 8:51 pm

James is a registered user.

The council did the right thing. Water rights should never be sold. Selling the rights to fund a water recycling project is even worse, because not only you lose precious water rights, you are adding more tax burden to Palo Alto residents, for a bottomless money pit.

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 2, 2022 at 8:52 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

It boggles the mind that people only see the outside of the problem with no mention of the complexities of how to accomplish the solution within the given parameters of state law. Palo Alto is in Santa Clara County. Any water transactions have to occur within the parameters of how the County water department works and how it interacts with other counties - in this case San Mateo County and San Francisco County. Each county is on the hook for managing their respective allotments of water.
Any water allotment has to be contingent on what the projections for housing are in any county. That is the water users - both residential, commercial, and agricultural usage.
When people come up with ideas that do not address any of the top-level management concerns of the state agencies then why are they even on any city board that makes major decisions regarding how we function.

Santa Clara County is now working on major development in the south area - Gilroy. South San Jose, Cupertino area - all looking at major building growth.
All I can assume from the origin of this idea is that the person who proposed the idea has a business interest in the growth in Brisbane.

As to comments about the growth of housing in the CA central section look at your newspapers - the Real Estate section has listings of new developments and houses across the whole northern state. The whole state is popping with new homes.

Posted by Seer
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 2, 2022 at 6:02 pm

Seer is a registered user.

Modular Nuclear desalination lining the coast. Nothing short of that!! We’re not anti-vaxxers, we ought not drink our pee Pat.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 2, 2022 at 8:05 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Eric, isn't it true that ABAG refused to consider the drought, fire and water use when setting their housing targets and that they rejected all cases trying to force them to consider these seemingly obvious factors? How do they get away with rejecting reality??

You mention state water politics. When is the state going to stop Nestle and the other who sell state water commercially from draining us dry? That issue has been around forever while they keep siphoning out huge amounts of water?

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 3, 2022 at 7:49 am

Annette is a registered user.

Remember the NYT Op-Ed that called out Palo Alto for its lack of housing? Local reaction focused quite a lot on what the Op-Ed had to say about housing here and not so much on this even bigger message: Democrats have had unbridled control in Sacramento for years but major problems have only gotten worse. Housing policy overlooks reality, homelessness has reached shameful levels (especially given that our governor thought it acceptable to amass a 30 BILLION $ surplus which, in the projected new budget, will grow to over $40 BILLION), crime is ridiculous, and various aspects of infrastructure are inadequate. Yet the mandate is to GROW. Against this backdrop, why would anyone think it smart to turn water rights into a commodity and effect a financial transaction?

I am drawing to the conclusion that there's too much MBA-think and politician-think and far too little practical-think that focuses on what's best for the State of California and the human beings who live here. Should you question this, consider the "good" that has come from MBA-think running health care. Let's not apply that same "only the bottom line matters" approach to our water resources.

I will be reading candidate bios very carefully and will be wary of campaign rhetoric by incumbents and MBAs.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 3, 2022 at 9:15 am

Online Name is a registered user.

@Annette, absolutely. I's so tired politicians treating residents as cash cows -- aka revenue-sources in MBA-speak -- to be milked, not served while ignoring the consequences (both obvious and unintended) of this push for immediate growth.

Today's Full House Report said 2 towns are again appealing, citing drought, water shortages and fire. This week the SF YIMBY party's endorsed a candidate with no political or housing experience whose sole platform pledging to ignore any and all objections; read the SF Chron's front-page article Web Link on how they're so frustrated by politicians who consider these factors that they withdrew their endorsement of a PRO-housing official and instead endorsed a candidate with NO housing or political experience but who promised to ignore fire, drought etc. to "send a message" to all that only Build, Baby, Build NOW is acceptable.

Re the growing homeless population, many are struggling gig workers. Today CA said it might appeal the Federal move to force CA workers to repay their Covid EDD benefits since they weren't employees of the same companies that spent hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying against giving them benefits. One such company faced a revolt by its $400K MBAs and techies against the company-wide mandate that everyone play gig-worker-for-a-day for the experience.

Who do the politicians want to pay for the growing homeless population AND affordable housing and the new offices so developers can afford to build affordable housing AND the never-ending growth of big-tech,including those "employing" the gig workers which will further increase housing targets...

Totally agree "there's too much MBA-think and politician-think" and highly recommend we give common sense and logic a try. Remember the Age of Reason??

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 3, 2022 at 9:45 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

There is nothing wrong with an MBA - it is what the person does with it. Many people get into politics to drive results for their agenda. Getting to someone's agenda is the hard part. A lot of journalistic opinions right now on the "progressive" agenda which some are trying to implode on cities, counties and the state. However, that agenda does not ever address all of the components which are affected by the single agenda topic. Each of the "progressive" agenda goals are single line specific - like housing. Adding housing assumes that you have available land to accomplish that goal. Palo Alto is a very old city that is built out to it's borders. Comparison to Mountain View that has a lot of land that is not built on, or commercial properties that have reached the end of their useful life and can be converted to housing.
So now water is a commodity that can be sold on the market despite all of the housing and commercial growth that is projected for this specific area- city and county. That is an agenda problem - not an MBA problem. PACC members establish their track record based on what they vote for and what they propose. We can see the track record here - cautionary for any next election and any one's agenda for higher office. Public officials establish their own agendas which have nothing to do with "democracy", or any awareness of cause and effect of all of the components of the agenda topic.

Posted by Eric Filseth
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 3, 2022 at 11:13 am

Eric Filseth is a registered user.

As one of three MBA’s on the current city council, I hereby protest the equating of "MBA-think" and "Politician-think." There’s no need for such personal attacks ;-)

(But since we’re making them, I’d posit that MBA’s are trained to ignore symbolism and fixate on results, while with Politicians it’s too often the reverse. Though the outcomes aren’t always different enough.)

@Online Name “how do [ABAG] get away with rejecting reality?” --> Not enough MBA’s on ABAG.

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 3, 2022 at 1:40 pm

Anonymous is a registered user.

How about we keep our wonderful Hetch Hetchy mountain water instead
Of transferring that, and ourselves then using “recycled” treated used water.
One of the merits of Palo Alto - for many decades - is that it is
On San Francisco Hetch Hetchy water.
I also understand we have paid in to improve the Hetch Hetchy system.
I realize there’s a cunning ongoing PR effort to persuade us it’s equivalent to
Have a wastewater treatment scheme associated with San Jose and drink that water; blend in well water, etc.; but this city Should serve the interests of our residents and businesses and KEEP the fresh Hetch
Hetchy water!

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 3, 2022 at 2:16 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Eric, some of my best friends are MBAs ;-> And Resident, you're right that it's an agenda problem and that could and should be a fascinating discussion.

It would also be fun to play fill-in-the-blank game asking How many Politicians / MBAs /engineers/ customer service reps/ bureaucrats etc does it take to change a lightbulb / get the best results So many possibilities.

More MBAs to get ABAG to accept reality. Beats the real estate lawyers.

MBAs do, though, bear some responsibility for our current woes: their insistence on outsourcing. reliance on low-cost foreign manufacturers, countries, labor practices and the creation of a gig worker/contractor economy that's caused the shortage of truck drivers and the frustrating and persistent shortages of common household and industrial items,,,..

Results are good. Results that recognize realities are better; Resident said, you can't shove more housing into built-out cities. The old 5-lb bag situation.

Posted by mjh
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 3, 2022 at 4:47 pm

mjh is a registered user.

ABAG is an unelected deep pocket industry influenced body that will never let practicalities get in the way of demanding unrestrained pouring of concrete and moving on without being held responsible for future impacts. It’s the nature of the beast. A beast that it appears that too many of our elected officials are beholden too and who can be depended on as either having insufficient analytical skills for the job or sufficiently cynical to look the other way, or both.

Posted by Local Resident
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 5, 2022 at 10:39 am

Local Resident is a registered user.

So what happens when we are in a major drought and only get 50% of allocation? This is one reason to future proof our water supply by retaining our current allocation.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 5, 2022 at 3:13 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Not to worry. Even though ABAG won't consider droughts, fire or other emergencies, cities like PA are busily working on plans to make our waste water potable to help fill the gap..

Posted by LydiaKou
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 5, 2022 at 5:01 pm

LydiaKou is a registered user.

The City originally acquired its Individual Supply Guarantee(ISG) and Water Supply Agreement via a 1978 lawsuit (City of Palo Alto vs. City and County of San Francisco). The parties settled in 1984 and Palo Alto was given the rights to the ISG via contract.

The City has a contractual right, the Individual Supply Guarantee, to about 16.5 mgd of water from SFPUC’s Hetch Hetchy Regional Water System. The City actually uses far less than that. In fact, in 2018 the City transferred 0.5mgd to East Palo Alto for free. That leaves Palo Alto with 16.0mgd.

However, HCD and ABAG continues to impose insane non-substantiated regional housing need allocations upon cities, and every 8 years, the housing numbers get larger. Heading into the sixth cycle, cities across California saw their regional housing need allocations rise dramatically. For example, in Los Angeles County, the current draft allocation requires 813,000 new homes by 2029, almost five times more than the current goal of 180,000. However, this allocation sticker shock is not limited to California’s largest cities. Marin County saw its allocation rise to 3,569 units, a nearly 1,900% increase from the 185 units the unincorporated area was assigned in the 5th cycle.

Yet, HCD and ABAG does not consider our resources, especially the shortage of water and our infrastructure.

Water is a life line, safeguard it for the residents of Palo Alto.

Posted by Keith
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 5, 2022 at 11:13 pm

Keith is a registered user.

The proposal was to sell 1 million gallons / day. Assuming 100 gallons / day / person, that's enough for 10,000 residents. Assuming 2 people per housing unit, that's 5,000 housing units. Small, new apartments / condo units large enough to be comfortable for 2 persons sell for about $1 million, so that's $5B in construction value enabled if they pay say $30M for the water. That's less than 1% of the construction value. What does Palo Alto get: About $25/ resident / year for 30 years, including 2% interest. Then nothing. Water, including groundwater is very valuable.
By the way, if it's important, the developer can pay for their own water recycling plant. Then, they're not diluting the resources being shared by current residents as much.

Posted by Hal
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Feb 6, 2022 at 4:51 pm

Hal is a registered user.

Funny how I can't just drill a hole over my taxed property and get my own water using my own solar panels to pump the water on my property. Give me what is mine. Just my .02

Posted by Another Bob
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 7, 2022 at 2:20 pm

Another Bob is a registered user.

Re: It would also be fun to play fill-in-the-blank game asking How many Politicians / MBAs /engineers/ customer service reps/ bureaucrats etc does it take to change a lightbulb / get the best results So many possibilities.

Politicians: N/A They never accomplish anything
MBAs: First they have to scheme a way to get a new bulb. Then we'll see.
Engineers: None of their bulbs have ever worn out, so they don't know how.
Customer service reps: Please hold the line. You are number 56.
Bureaucrats: Still waiting for the Department of Bulb Changing to find office space and hire staff.
Etc.--Rich People in Palo Alto: They don't change them, they just buy a bigger house.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 7, 2022 at 3:16 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Politicians: We need to circle back with the stakeholders/lobbyists so we can wrap our minds around this issue of importance to us all. Check back before the next election.

MBAs: First we need to shape a mission statement paradigm and then formulate a mission statement and then develop a survey of some prospects for what they really want in a light bulb and then hire some consultants to tell them they don't know what they really want...

Engineers: We envision a bright future for flying lightbults.

Customer service reps: Please hold the line. You are number 56.

Bureaucrats: Still waiting for the Department of Bulb Changing to find office space and hire staff.

Palo Alto: We need study groups to determine the values and priorities, a few off-site retreats to consider them, we need PAU statement stuffers extolling the virtues of conservation and a PAU Commission Hearing to get resident reactions which can safely be ignored because there weren't 12,000 people who cared...

Posted by scott
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 9, 2022 at 11:59 am

scott is a registered user.

An elected official commenting on this thread is calling water "a zero-sum resource." Another has a history of citing water concerns in opposition to housing.

I encourage everyone to read the story above with these claims in mind. Is water a zero-sum resource when you could sell it, and invest in building a water recycling plant? Is water a basis for not building housing when we have a surplus that we could sell to do that?

When someone is telling you the sky is red, look up.

Posted by resident3
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 9, 2022 at 1:04 pm

resident3 is a registered user.


"Is water a basis for not building housing when we have a surplus that we could sell to do that?|

Your logic sounds a bit like the case for carbon offsets which are a form of charity; you have run out of things to influence so you give something away to create the appearance that you are doing something responsible.

Who would be the recipient of this donation exactly? Is it affordable housing or just "housing" in general.

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 10, 2022 at 9:04 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

Today in the BAN/SJM - "Voter-approved state water projects are making progress". This was voted on in 2014 and now 2022 a number of projects have been approved. They are calling that "Progress". So much for the state of CA which - as Joe Garfoli of the SFC says "it is all political". The Progressive Brain promotes an idea - a "message' that it can sell but no plan of action as to how to make it happen. Or in the case of SB9 Housing no plan on all of the elements which are required to make a "Message" a realistic response to a problem.

Brisbane is in San Mateo County. We are in Santa Clara County. One assumes that San Mateo County is in control of their allotment and resources of water. One also assumes that Santa Clara County is in control of water resources for this county based on the projects that are scheduled. But to assume any of that as being realistic is wrong. That then falls back on the cities to protect their flanks against the agendas and motivations of the promoters of schemes.

We have direct threats in SB 9 housing which directly affects our water allotment. Mr. Bonta who is protecting Mr. Weiner's flank will have to be voted on in the next election. Meanwhile Mr. Weiner is hoping to take an appointment from a retiring Senator. Recognize how people get in control of the "message' and start the dialog of all of the pieces required for a successful outcome. Force response on those elements. Water, Available Land, Transportation, JOBS that are available in the area. SOCAL has a more diverse labor base with more labor categories - a better place for a lot of the ideas to actually evolve into a realistic outcome. Most of these ideas are state-wide so address the outcomes in terms of the available resources in the state total.

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