City looks to tap into the value of wastewater | News | Palo Alto Online |


City looks to tap into the value of wastewater

Palo Alto explores building new plant to treat, sell recycled water

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Palo Alto's new plan for water management calls for building new plants, forging new partnerships and — trickiest of all — convincing residents that their wastewater is good enough to drink.

The city is now rethinking how it uses its wastewater, with the goal of converting it from a burden to a resource. The city's Regional Water Quality Control Plant, which serves Palo Alto, the East Palo Alto Sanitary District, Mountain View, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Stanford University, treated about 7.5 billion gallons of wastewater in 2017, of which 97 percent was dumped into the San Francisco Bay.

The remaining 3 percent was treated further and then ferried by the city's "purple pipes" to parks in Palo Alto and Mountain View, where it is used to irrigate the Shoreline Golf Links and the landscapes of corporations at North Bayshore area.

On Monday night, members of the City Council concurred with staff's assessment that given the recent drought, the raging wildfires and the general uncertainty brought about by climate change, resiliency should be at a premium. And with the Santa Clara Valley Water District looking to expand its own water portfolio, the city is hoping to make a tidy profit by making a deal with the district to build the new infrastructure.

In short, they want to take the "waste" out of wastewater.

To do that, city officials are exploring two separate strategies. One would effectively take existing recycled water and make it better while keeping it non-potable. While the council currently sells water to Mountain View, other entities — including Stanford Research Park — have been reluctant to tap into the water source because of high salt content, which they fear would damage redwoods.

Building a small plant on the west side of the regional water plant site would address that concern, said Phil Bobel, assistant director at Public Works. Using reverse osmosis to remove salt, the city would create "enhanced recycle water" that could be used principally in irrigation.

"It would feed higher quality water to our existing pipeline system so that we can get more customers along that pipeline but who aren't using it because they are concerned about salt," Bobel said.

The other, a far more ambitious, complex and controversial project, would use advanced treatment techniques to convert wastewater into the drinkable kind. Such a plant could take up to 10 years to plan out and construct, Bobel said, and it would require both a deal with the water district and — because the new water plant would have to occupy a parkland site — it would need the approval of Palo Alto voters.

Bobel said the if the city pursues a deal with the water district, a new plant to purify the water could either be constructed at the Regional Water Quality Control Plant, on a piece of parkland that was "undedicated" by the voters in 2014 or farther south, in Sunnyvale or San Jose. Under the latter option, treated water would be shipped from Palo Alto Baylands to the advanced-treatment plant.

These challenges and complexities notwithstanding, staff believes that the new system could bring great benefits to Palo Alto. It would allow the city to get paid for its wastewater; it would help the city meet its water-supply needs; and, most importantly, it would dramatically reduce discharge into the Bay and help the city meet regulatory requirements.

"We know the regulations are going to get more and more stringent over discharging to the Bay," Bobel said. "We can probably reduce us some long-term grief if we can reduce the discharge to the Bay. And sending the water south would do that."

According to Public Works staff, the plant has the treatment capacity to produce 4.5 million gallons per year of non-potable water.

The city and water district have been talking about a possible deal for months. Both Palo Alto and the water district have representatives on the Joint Recycled Water Advisory Committee, which also includes officials from Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Mountain View.

Garth Hall, deputy operating officer at the water district, said the district is looking for new supplies to meet an expected rise in countywide demand for water.

"We know from our planning that we have additional needs in 2050 and beyond that can't be directly served by imported water. We have to look at drought-proof sustainable supplies," Hall said. "And we know the City Council, like our district, has sustainability as one of its missions."

One point of negotiations will be the length of the contract. Bobel said he expects the agreement with the water district to cover a period of about 40 years, a period that several council members suggested was too long.

"We can understand why it has to be that long," Bobel explained. "If the district is going to spend big bucks either building the water plant and/or a pipeline system south, they've got to have this exist for long enough to recoup the investment."

While council members had some reservations about the potential terms with the county — including the prospect of locking in a rate for too long a period — they generally supported the idea of turning recycled water into potable water. Councilman Tom DuBois, who sits on the Joint Recycled Water Advisory Committee, argued that the city should consider ways to diversify its water supply over the long term.

"I believe as a council we should really look at coming together and analyzing how we can get a large potable water treatment plant in Palo Alto that helps us decrease Hetch Hetchy water over 40 years," DuBois said.

Councilman Cory Wolbach, who also serves on the committee, concurred that "recycled water is the future." He lauded the goals of supporting neighbors and promoting sustainability but said his top priority is ensuring a secure supply for residents.

"We have to do everything we can to guarantee that our local community will have access to safe drinking water in perpetuity," Wolbach said. "For me, that value has primacy in all these discussions."

Several residents, including former mayors Pat Burt and Peter Drekmeier, also spoke in favor of exploring new ways to purify and reuse water. Burt pointed to the recent string of devastating wildfires as evidence that the city is already facing the impacts of climate change. In addition to threatening residents, the fires are decimating the forests that are essential to protecting snowpacks. This recent trend, Burt argued, underscores the importance of securing stable water supplies.

"Reducing our reliance on distant and vulnerable supplies makes us more sustainable and more self-reliant," Burt said.

In addition, he said, the plant could be the first to use 100 percent carbon-free electricity, a key feature for such an energy-dependent project.

Drekmeier, policy director for Tuolumne River Trust, made the case for "advanced purified water." In most communities, it would actually be an improvement over their current tap water.

"We're very fortunate that we get this pristine snowmelt from the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park," Drekmeier said. "But I think most people would agree that our drinking water is too high quality for flushing toilets and watering lawns. We need to diversify."

Like others, he acknowledged that the city would have to fight the "yuck" factor, but suggested this challenge is not insurmountable.

"A few years ago, we served beer made from advanced treated water at the Silicon Valley Water Conservation Awards," Drekmeier said. "It was more popular than the tap water."


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7 people like this
Posted by Judith Wasserman
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 20, 2018 at 11:13 am

Judith Wasserman is a registered user.

OK - flush the toilets with beer.

2 people like this
Posted by H20
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 20, 2018 at 12:42 pm

Urine is purified at outer space stations and then recycled into drinking water for the astronauts.

If the process can be accomplished that far away, the it shouldn't be all that complicated to do on Earth.

Better yet, have individual water recycling units for residential use. If the taste is off, the water can always be used for watering the plants or washing the car.

4 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 20, 2018 at 12:44 pm

I'm really interested in how they plan to do the "carbon-free" part, because, -energy- is always the key to turning unusable water into good water. The last thing we should do is use more fossil fuels to drive these systems.

The other side of things, which is to develop a dual-piping system for really-fresh water for drinking and bathing, and utility water for other uses, definitely should be pursued. I'm not sure whether the current system of using diesel trucks to deliver and pump "purple" water is a net gain for the environment. It saves fresh water at the expense of burning more fossil fuel. What really needs to happen is a new, lead-free system of drinking water delivery-- then relegate the old system to the other uses.

10 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 20, 2018 at 1:17 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

How much is this going to cost us or will we be getting a discount? Our water bills are already outrageous and PA Utilities ran a $19,500,000 "surplus" last year that siphoned money out of our pockets into the General Fund.

By the way, how much is the "surplus" this year?

3 people like this
Posted by Forests
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 20, 2018 at 3:55 pm

Mayor Burt is incorrect when he claims that "fires are decimating the forests that are essential to protecting snowpacks." In fact, a study (Web Link) of the snow holding effects of treeless areas versus treed areas conducted by U Washington's Dr. Lundquist examined relevant published research that listed paired snow measurements in neighboring forested and open areas. Places with similar winter climates – parts of the Swiss Alps, western Oregon and Washington, and the Sierra Nevada range in California – all had similar outcomes: Snow lasted longer in open areas. I have personally observed this during ski trips to Bear Valley.

2 people like this
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 20, 2018 at 4:56 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

To have only gray water into the system: BACK TO THE FUTURE:

Web Link

How many people in Palo Alto have seen or used an outhouse?

Having EVERYONE use this type of recycling means $MILLIONS could save on the treatment plant. Or if you have the room, a SEPTIC SYSTEM with a leach field will help you so you don't feel guilty every time you flush.

Remember it's for the children. Reducing your footprint on our shared planet.

2 people like this
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 20, 2018 at 5:31 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

This story relates to the subject and has an amusing true ending. Mom always took us on her field trips. One day, we went to the San Jose Sewage Treatment Plant. I wondered at the huge pipes and pumps. " All our energy used comes from our waste digesters. Our remaning mass goes to farmers as fertilizer. Our treated water goes into the bay ". The tour guide was proud of that solution. USING BIOMASS AS FUEL IS WHAT FARMERS HAVE DONE FOR A HUNDRED YEARS. Again back to the future.
As we were leaving, we went by the aeration ponds. I asked " where do all those balloons come from? ". I was ~9 years old at that time.

6 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 20, 2018 at 5:49 pm

"Bobel said the if the city pursues a deal with the water district, a new plant to purify the water could either be constructed either at the Regional Water Quality Control Plant, on a piece of parkland that was "undedicated" by the voters in 2014..."

Saaay, wasn't the idea to get energy from garbage on that park? Now we find out we gave up 10 acres of our less than adequate park land so we can belly up and drink and re-drink our, ... um, well, that stuff. This is progress?

Like this comment
Posted by cvvhrn
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 21, 2018 at 5:57 am

cvvhrn is a registered user.

If the enhanced are has a market we should go for it.

The septic system has merit but for one thing. The proliferation of Max build McMansions leave little land for the systems or leech fields needed

2 people like this
Posted by Curious
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 21, 2018 at 3:04 pm

> Urine is purified at outer space stations and then recycled into drinking water for the astronauts.

Do the astronauts drink their own private urine or is it all collected into one recycling source and then shared?

I don't think I'd want to drink someone else's pee especially my little brother's.

Like this comment
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 21, 2018 at 3:46 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

A straight septic system WITHOUT A LEACH FIELD is another option; you just pump out the underground tank every year. My diseased best friend was a county and State certified person to examine and certified both wells and septic systems and if a proper leach field was installed. I went along on some of his trips and learned a lot about requirements at the State and local levels. A well ( and any recycling system ) must meet certain requirements before it can be declared to be safe to drink from it ( potable water ). Many farmers just drill a deep well and use water on crops, not test for potability at all. That is the state of agribusiness today.
I took an Alternative Energy course at Foothill College and know a bit more about biomass, PV systems, windmills and NORMAL powerplant efficiencies. Normal " teakettle " type plants are only 40% efficient in producing electricity ( any plant that heats water to spin turbines ) PV systems are ~21% efficient. But there is a major change in PV efficiency. MIT produced 40% efficient solar cells for DARPA DECADES AGO. I was working on high energy TMF cells for DARPA solar backpacks at that time. Perennial Gouger & Extortion and other energy creators would not let these solap cells go on the market, since PV systems would allow most of the people start living " off the grid ". Maybe people should start hammering doors at MIT and DARPA to turn over their secrets to the public; after all WE PAID GOOD MONEY FOR THOSE ENERGY PRODUCERS. Maybe Elon Musk duplicated the same secret, I do not know. But I digress.
Most Treatment plants use fart gas to run their treatment plants, no morf " burning it off as In the past. Just separate the waer out and digest the rest. Kinda like your own digestive system but on a much bigger scale. Don't build Foster City on SF waste, we can recycle it.

12 people like this
Posted by Use the Water for Soft Drinks
a resident of another community
on Nov 21, 2018 at 8:06 pm

Why not just sell the refined wastewater to soft drink manufacturers? The flavorings would cover up any lingering aftertastes (if any).

2 people like this
Posted by I Enjoy My Outhouse
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 22, 2018 at 6:44 pm

>>How many people in Palo Alto have seen or used an outhouse?

I have one in my back yard...just don't tell the City. And when it gets full, I just cover the hole with dirt & move the outhouse a few feet away.. It's about the size of a small closet and the only time I experienced a problem was when some buddies toppled it over while I was still a practical joke.

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