Council adopts rules to curb groundwater waste | News | Palo Alto Online |


Council adopts rules to curb groundwater waste

Council sets new restrictions on pumping water for basement construction

It didn't take arcane alchemy or a purification plant to transform Palo Alto's groundwater from a construction nuisance into a precious resource.

All it took was a surge of civic engagement and intense lobbying from residents, many of whom packed into City Hall on Tuesday night to urge city leaders to put an end to "dewatering" -- the act of pumping out groundwater to enable basement construction. In 2016, the eight residential projects that entailed dewatering pumped out 140 million gallons of water, according to Public Works staff. Many in the community were offended by the sight of rivers flowing down gutters en route to the city's storm drain system.

On Tuesday, members the City Council added their voices and votes to the citizens movement when they approved new requirements for basement pumping. These include a new time limit for pumping (a two-week "startup" period followed by 10 weeks of pumping); new standards for fill stations at pumping sites; and a requirement that pumping go no deeper than 3 feet below the basement slab during the construction period and 1 foot after the slab is poured.

The council also signaled that greater changes may be on the way in 2018, when the city may start requiring basement builders to use cutoff walls, a construction technique that isolates the basement area from the broader site and drastically reduces the amount of water being pumped.

While the issue of groundwater pumping isn't new to Palo Alto, it has taken on renewed urgency over the last few years, thanks to a lingering drought and a growing number of construction projects. Dozens of residents, most of them wearing "Save Palo Alto's Groundwater" stickers, flocked to the council meeting Tuesday to urge action. Some called for a moratorium on groundwater pumping; others urged members to immediately require the more localized construction techniques.

Keith Bennett, founder of the citizens group, urged the council Tuesday to demand a greater contribution from builders who pump out water.

"Dewatering makes significant use of public resources, particularly groundwater and storm drains, by a few without compensation to the community who provide funding for these resources," Bennet told the council. "Impacts of private development on the larger community are an increasing angst for many residents -- not only for basement construction. We must not be afraid to require applicants to incur additional project costs to reduce impacts on the community."

Former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, a longtime conservationist, noted that one property had pumped out 30 million gallons of water last year. That amount of water, he said, has a market value of about $130,000.

"We all know water is very precious," Drekmeier said. "Unfortunately, the water pumped out of basements is considered to have no value because it's a nuisance. That's why we don't care for it."

Ester Negenda, who is also a leading organizer of the citizens movement, urged the council to think of the city's groundwater "as a resource, not a construction byproduct."

"It's time to work together to make sure we have a sustainable water future," Negenda said.

The council largely shared this sentiment. Vice Mayor Liz Kniss said there's "never been a time when we've been as aware of water flowing in a gush down the streets." The only question that stirred debate was: How far and how fast should the city go?

Councilwoman Karen Holman, joined by Lydia Kou and Tom DuBois, advocated for a more aggressive approach. Rather than wait until 2018 to impose the new cutoff-wall requirement, the city should consider adopting them for this year's construction season, which goes from April to October, Kou and Holman both argued.

"I think we've waited long enough and the residents have done a great deal of research on this," Kou said.

Holman agreed.

"We have plenty of data," she said, "We need to move on it. We need to act on it. We need to stop the waste."

Others were more cautious. Rather than requiring cutoff walls this year, the council supported giving incentives to builders to construct them. Chief of these is waiving the requirement for an enhanced geotechnical study for those who use the less wasteful technique (they would still have to perform a more rudimentary study).

After the proposal from Kou and Holman failed by a 3-6 vote, with DuBois joining them, the council unanimously approved the gradual approach, which Mayor Greg Scharff called "a good compromise."

"I think it's a good vision and I think it's a sustainable vision," Scharff said.


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36 people like this
Posted by waste not
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 7, 2017 at 11:59 pm

My thanks to Lydia Kou and Karen Holman tor trying to get the council to take action and not continue "analysis and studies" for the obvious. Over 20 speakers, and not one person spoke in favor of dewatering, - The compromise Scarff created was one of business as usual - put off an immediate decision, study/evaluate. Maybe even hire another expensive consultant (my comment) to research an alternative method of building basements that has already proven to work and save ground water.

I am not a rocket scientist- but every article I read regarding space exploration, finding new planets etc, the mention of finding water is always of prime importance. . Water means the possibility of life -------and on this mother ship we are flushing it down the drain by the gallons so that a basement can be added to an existing 3-5,000sq ft home..

It has been a while since I went to a council meeting, my patience threshold is low.. Tonite I was amazed by the rudeness of many council members. No, I don't know how they ' listen", only a majority were working on their computers, reading something on their computers, looking through papers while residents took their time, wrote down their thoughts and got up to speak. The least the council members could do, at a minimum, is "look" like they are active listeners.....and I know I was not the only one who noticed or commented on this behavior.

15 people like this
Posted by Save Palo Alto's Groundwater
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 8, 2017 at 9:19 am

As shown by last night's vote, Council is beginning to hear our concerns. There were nearly 100 supporters of Save Palo Alto's Groundwater in the crowd, and over 30 submitted speaker cards. Thank you to all who took the time to show up.

In addition to voluntary actions by contractors, further Enhancements to the regulations for 2018 will be important to more comprehensively address this issue.

If you care about this issue:
1) Save Palo Alto's Groundwater has a blog covering this topic, including reference materials:
Web Link

2) Send an e-mail with your name to be added to blog update list to

16 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 8, 2017 at 11:43 am

Annette is a registered user.

I attended last night's meeting. This article left out a highlight of the public comments: a very bright THIRD GRADER was the first speaker and she made a compelling case for the more aggressive approach supported by Kou, Holman, and Dubois. Good for them for trying. While the subject gets gnawed on for another who-knows-how-long some in our community will be dealing directly w/the impact of dewatering. One woman mentioned that her home is adjacent to THREE homes slated to dig a basement this year. If I heard correctly, each basement is larger than her house. She is understandably concerned. Another woman asked "who do I go after" if something does go wrong. It's hard to square Council's "compromise" with the magnitude of the issue. Hopefully they will not wait until 2018 to implement the "greater changes".

Also, the way the mayor conducted the meeting after public comments wrapped up was reminiscent of what happened on Jan. 30.

19 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 8, 2017 at 12:26 pm

Thanks to all those involved. Better late than never. I was getting so tired of getting preached to about saving water while watching the water run down the streets.

6 people like this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 8, 2017 at 11:30 pm

I can't believe the people could really understand this issue and vote
to restrict "dewatering". Democracy can be an ugly thing when it is
driven by political lack of information and propaganda. Booooo!

Like this comment
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 9, 2017 at 3:11 pm

[Post removed.]

2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 9, 2017 at 5:08 pm

"I can't believe the people could really understand this issue and vote to restrict "dewatering""

They evidently did, and so they did.

Basements are fine, but keep them and their effects on your own property. Nobody has a right to just divert (just take) anything, including groundwater, from their neighbors' properties.

Property rights, get it?

1 person likes this
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 10, 2017 at 10:56 am

Really. A little sensitive about calling dewatering "flat earth science?"

Can't handle real criticism?

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