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By Jay Thorwaldson

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 The system would replace an outdated incinerator at the treatment plant, used to turn sewage sludge to ash, using expensive natural gas.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.