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By Jay Thorwaldson

About this blog: I was editor of the Palo Alto Weekly from June 2000 to January 2011, capping a more than 50-year career in journalism and writing since Los Gatos High School, where I was editor of the student newspaper and president of the speech...  (More)

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On Deadline: It's name-calling, fact-enhancing compost season in Palo Alto

Uploaded: Mar 28, 2011
When the City Council officially set a special election for next November on the future of a corner of Palo Alto's baylands last week it opened the season of pre-election name calling and exaggeration that accompanies most elections, local, state and national.

Already, posters on the Town Square forum on www.PaloAltoOnline.com are accusing former Mayor Peter Drekmeier of being on an ego trip due to his leadership in favor of using 10 acres adjacent to the Water Quality Treatment Plant for a composting/energy facitility. Drekmeier and dozens of volunteers collected more valid signatures than needed to force an election on whether to "undedicate" the acreage, which has been designated as a future part of Byxbee Baylands Preserve.

Similarly, personal comments have been made about stalwart opponent Emily Renzel, a former City Council member who has been a protector of the baylands for decades -- her e-mail handle is "MarshMama."

In November, Palo Altans will be asked to decide whether keeping a composting operation local and using it to generate electricity through an anaerobic-digestion system that produces methane gas, which can power electricity generators. The system would replace an outdated incinerator at the treatment plant, used to turn sewage sludge to ash, using expensive natural gas. (See press release on initiative here.)

Last week (March 22), Drekmeier, Renzel and three city staff members -- Senior Engineer Joe Teresi, Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie and Brad Eggleston of the treatment plant staff -- outlined possible futures for the baylands at a League of Women Voters forum. The staffers shunned the politics to focus on the current status of flood control, the future of the Palo Alto Airport (which, so to speak, has been up in the air for some time), and how the sewage plant works.

Teresi noted that the levee system that protects a huge sections of lowlands Palo Alto and other parts of the South Bay were never "designed" levees but simply piled up bay mud.

Contrary to general belief, he said should there be a substantial levee break at high tide some parts of Palo Alto could be inundated with about 8 feet of water, far deeper than the 1998 flood from overflow of San Francisco Creek. He pointed to one curved levee near the Baylands Nature Preserve as key to holding back the bay.

Emslie focused primarily on the Palo Alto Airport, which Santa Clara County has said it no longer wants to operate. But Palo Alto must keep the airport open because of a series of federal grants to upgrade it -- which require that it be kept open for 20 years. Consultant studies indicate it could be operated at a profit, he said.

But the main focus of the evening was Byxbee preserve and the choices that voters will soon hear more about leading to a November decision.
Drekmeier led off with comments about the proposed "Green Energy and Compost Initiative," referring to the 4-hour City Council discussion of the matter the night before in a study session. He said trucking the city's compost-capable materials to another site would create 12,000 tons of greenhouse gases a year. He said if all the city's food and yard waste were collected in one spot "it would fill a football field as high as City Hall."

Creating an alternate to the "embarrassing" incineration of sewage sludge would save more than $1 million annually in savings on natural gas and disposal of the ash. He said the proposed "wet anaerobic digestion" process would be far cheaper than alternatives, and said revenues from the operation could pay for improvements throughout the remaining 92 percent of the Byxbee preserve. (See PowerPoint slides here.)

Renzel said that isn't good enough, and that people have waited 45 years for the completion of the Byxbee park and shouldn't have to wait longer now. She said the city's landfill operation was created in the 1930s after the city's incinerator burned down. The land was dedicated as park land in 1965, when voters approved Enid Pearson's "Park Dedication" initiative ordinance, and the landfill was supposed to close in 1968 but was kept open illegally. (See her baylands' history here.)

"Our baylands were kind of like a Public Works (department) playground, with all sorts of things happening," she said.

Renzel said when she was named to the Planning Commission in 1973, then-Chair Mary Gordon helped initiate the first Baylands Master Plan, still in effect with some modifications and recently confirmed.

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Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of ,
on Mar 28, 2011 at 6:28 pm

"In November, Palo Altans will be asked to decide whether keeping a composting operation local and using it to generate electricity through an anaerobic-digestion system that produces methane gas, which can power electricity generators"


The way I understand it, the voters of Palo Alto will be asked whether they want to undedicate 10 acres of parkland. There is no mandate to force anaerobic digestion.

You seem to have drunk the kool aid of anaerobic digestion, and you also seem to be promoting that solution as a 'best use' alternative for those 10 acres.

Please correct me, if I am wrong, Jay.



Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of ,
on Mar 29, 2011 at 1:20 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Thank you for your article, Jay. Any name calling is unfortunate, I hope we can all try to keep the discussion respectful, focus on the issues and refrain from personal attacks. I appreciate Emily's and Enid's historic accomplishments to protect parks and baylands, leaving Palo Altans with, if i recall correctly, one of the highest per-capita park acreages in the region. But I happen to disagree with them as to the best use of these 10 acres of the landfill next to the sewage treatment plant. This site is the ONLY place which can allow us to handle our own wastes, reduce our green house gas emissions, and save the city money. This is the only workable site because of its size, its adjacency to the sewage treatment plant, its not being airport or commercial property, and because all the regional solutions outside Palo Alto are more expensive. (For my costs analysis, see Web Link

A small correction to Jay's quote of Peter: the 12,000 tons of CO2-equivalents is not just trucking, but is the difference between digesting and composting our municipal organic wastes locally versus trucking our food and yard wastes "away" and continuing to incinerate or sewage.
The 20,000 tons CO2 is the approximate difference between the local option of AD and Composting compared to what we are doing now (which is incinerating sewage, composting yard wastes at the landfill, sending some food to Gilroy for composting, and sending most food to the landfill where it releases methane, a potent GHG, to the atmosphere).

Craig is correct that the initiative only makes the 10 acres available "for conversion of organic wastes by biological and/or other equally environmentally protective technology" (Web Link It does not mandate a particular technology. Wet or Dry AD are the leading contenders, but there are other emerging technologies which _might_ fit the bill.

Posted by svatoid, a resident of ,
on Mar 29, 2011 at 8:17 am

Too bad that Jay, in his zeal to complain about name-calling and exaggeration, could not bother to get the facts right in his posting. Talk about exaggeration--Jay could not even get the facts on what we really be voting on in November right!!!!!
Is Jay also claiming that Renzel and Drekmeier are guilty of exaggeration??

Posted by Emily Renzel, a resident of ,
on Mar 29, 2011 at 1:42 pm

I urge voters to visit the Web Link noted above in Cedric de la Beaujardiere's posting and READ the Initiative language. After 10 findings, all but one discussing green energy and compost, with only (h) even mentioning undedication of parkland, there is a property description (for the map Exhibit A) which says,"thence from said True Point of Beginning the following four (4) courses and distances..." I may be reading it wrong, but there appear to be six (6) courses and distances ie. 209.06 feet, 276.48 feet, 180.61 feet, 652.20 feet, 633.72 feet and 671.94 feet. Hmmmm --ever heard of a six-sided rectangle?

Findings (f) and (j) suggest that revenues will flow to the General Fund from this project. The Feasibility Study shows all the revenues flowing to the private developer of the anaerobic facility (AD) for their 25% return on investment. The only monies that could flow to the General Fund would be RENT for the 10.1 acre site, but AD advocates have now been requesting that NO rent be charged for the parkland, because if the true value of the land were included, the project would not be feasible.

Proponents' literature showed a photo of the facility with a Green Roof, so that the true nature of this industrial facility next to Byxbee Park was not shown. No one is mentioning that any more because it would add a minimum of $4-$6 million to the already high cost of AD.

Section (3) makes a blanket amendment to the Baylands Master Plan (2008 update) saying "All language elsewhere in the Plan would be inoperative". That's a Pig in a Poke and totally disrespectful of the thousands of people hours spent planning for our precious Baylands.

Voters should say NO to this ill-thought out proposal and Byxbee Park should be completed as planned.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of ,
on Mar 29, 2011 at 3:43 pm

curmudgeon is a registered user.

Both Mr Thorwaldson and Ms Renzel make good points. However, my opinion is that truth is paramount.

The proponents of this measure should come clean about two major points:

1. The nicely buried and groomed facility they front on their website has no chance to be built. The city's consultant is not even evaluating the feasibility, let alone the cost, of that option. The facilities actually being considered resemble a cross between a big warehouse complex and an oil refinery. Members of the public can see photos of actual plants at Web Link Look at the last half of "Attachment H."

2. Its backers need to be clear that their initiative would only remove 10 acres -- an area roughly the size of Pardee Park -- from the Palo Alto park system. It does not mandate that an anerobic digester plant be constructed. They ought, in the interest of truthfulness, to cease their claims that this initiative will build a "garbage-to-power" plant in Palo Alto. It does no such thing.

I highly recommend that voters read the actual text of the initiative.

Posted by Jay Thorwaldson, a resident of ,
on Mar 30, 2011 at 7:44 am

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Hi -- I actually have not reached a personal conclusion on whether this project should proceed or not. It would clearly intrude on dedicated parkland, particularly visually, through truck traffic and the irritating beep-beep-beep of backing up vehicles moving compost and materials around the site. But images of huge buildings (already produced by opponents a few months ago) clearly exaggerate the impact. It is true the vote in November would technically only "undedicate" the 10 acres, not mandate a particular project or design. But practically speaking there is no other use that anyone would dare put there than the latest design for a low-profile, partly underground (or covered with a ground-level grass roof) facility. The project and its economic and environmental features will be a major part of the campaign, as it was of the signature-gathering effort that led to the initiative election. I am well aware of the bitter fight Enid Pearson led to get parks dedicated back in 1965, and Emily Renzel's consistent efforts to protect and expand such dedications. This proposal should not be taken lightly -- but the project is complicated enough that both sides would do voters a favor by being accurate in their information. -jay

Posted by svatoid, a resident of ,
on Mar 30, 2011 at 7:58 am

Good points, Crumudgeon and Jay. The question is, can the out of control environmentalists that are pushing this issue be accurate in their zeal to push through their latest grandiose scheme? I have found that these environmentalists tend to filter everything through their green prism (with the attitude that their belief is the right one and they are "saving" the environment) irregardless of cost and/or impact on the community.
I also expect neither side to flood our mailboxes with mailings about this election nor do I expect to see any signs planted in front yards, since that would be bad for the environment.

Posted by Emily Renzel, a resident of ,
on Mar 30, 2011 at 8:59 am

Dear Jay: We did not produce images of the AD facilities several months ago. The Consultant ARI produced them and they are actual examples proudly submitted by the 7 vendors who responded to ARI's request for proposals. We have to assume that they are somewhat prototypical of what will be built in our baylands. They will not put the buildings underground for several reasons: 1) It is costly to dig down into former landfill; 2) The baylands are prone to flooding and 3) for seismic safety, the buildings will all be pile supported.. As for a Green Roof, it costs a minimum of $25 to $40/square foot and was not included in any of the ARI analyses. I'm still waiting for the web site to download using Curmudgeons link, but you can see the ARI photos at <savethebaylands.org> by clicking on "anaerobic digestors" I agree with you Jay: It's time for more honesty in this process.

Posted by Emily Renzel, a resident of ,
on Mar 30, 2011 at 9:01 am

I hope that Curmudgeon and Avatoid will contact me through the website. Emily

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of ,
on Mar 30, 2011 at 7:50 pm


Please explain why you will not consider plasma arc as a multi-faceted solution to our Baylands toxic pile? You seem to be locked into a very retro notion of preservation, namely a duck and cover.

We, in Palo Alto, have the ability to REVERSE past practices. We could, literally, return our dump into nearly pristine SF Bay. And we could do it at an economic profit, not a loss. You seem to be fighting old battles, with very old arguments.

Please give me an honest answer, Emily. It is time.



Posted by Parent, a resident of ,
on Mar 30, 2011 at 8:12 pm


Plasma Arc would be a good technology to use downstream of the SMaRT station after the sort line picks recyclables out of the waste stream. If we were to implement it in Byxbee Park, we would need to duplicate a facility that we already built and invested a considerable amount.

I think Plasma Arc may be a promising technology, but let's put it at the SMaRT station to leverage money that we already spent along with Mountain View and Sunnyvale. That will also minimize the recyclables that vaporized.

The treatment plant biosolids are still a dilemma to deal with, but the current incinerator is also still a previous investment that still has life left in it. I don't want to see my garbage AND sewer rates go up.


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