News

Palo Alto looks to sell, treat — and possibly ask people to drink — wastewater

City considers major deal with Santa Clara Valley Water to build new plant, sell effluent to the county

Golfers at Shoreline Golf Links play a hole adjacent to a pond on April 7. The pond is a blend of fresh water and recycled water from the city of Palo Alto. Photo by Veronica Weber.

In an effort to open the spigot on recycled water in the region, Palo Alto and Santa Clara Valley Water are exploring a deal that would send the city's wastewater to a treatment plant elsewhere in the county, where it would be treated, transformed into potable water and potentially resold to the city for its residents and businesses.

The proposed deal would give Palo Alto a new source of drought-proof water to draw on in case of emergency. Though the concept is new to Palo Alto, Valley Water -- the giant water district that serves most of Santa Clara County -- has had positive experiences with treating wastewater and reusing it, according to Garth Hall, deputy operating officer of Valley Water. It has been operating a plant on Zanker Road in San Jose since 2014, delivering water to an area that includes most of San Jose, as well as Milpitas, Serrano and Santa Clara.

The agreement, which the district is now negotiating with Palo Alto and Mountain View, would first require the cities to lower the salinity of their wastewater before sending it for further purification. Doing so would entail construction of a new desalination plant at the Regional Water Quality Control Plant in the Palo Alto Baylands, a facility that today processes the effluent of Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Stanford University and the East Palo Alto Sanitary District.

Under the tentative terms of the agreement, Valley Water (which until this year was known as the Santa Clara Valley Water District) would contribute $16 million to help Palo Alto build the $20-million plant. In addition to being turned into potable water, the less salty wastewater could also be sold to more customers for irrigation and other non-potable uses.

A major provision of the proposed agreement calls for Palo Alto to transfer about half of the treated effluent to the other location for further treatment and reuse. Valley Water would be expected to set up a transferring system for the wastewater within 13 years, after which time it would receive effluent deliveries from the Palo Alto plant for the next 63 years. The long time frame is needed to "justify the large capital investment and meet Valley Water's long-term water-supply-planning objectives," according to a new report from the Department of Public Works.

If approved by the City Council and by the city's wastewater-plant partners, the agreement would significantly expand the reach of the city's recycled water, which today is used for irrigation in Shoreline Park and at the Baylands Links Golf Course. The desalination plant would allow about 60 commercial customers in Mountain View to instantly join the system.

Palo Alto's experimentation with turning treated wastewater into potable water would be a significant shift for the city, which currently gets about 85% of its water from the Tuolumne River in Yosemite (the remainder comes from local reservoirs) and which takes great pride in the water's pristine quality.

As such, the Valley Water plan may end up pitting Palo Alto's environmental bona fides against the "ick" factor of drinking treated effluent.

But it may be an idea whose time has come: The council last year signaled its support for the Bay Delta Plan, which would require the Tuolumne and other tributaries of the San Joaquin River to have "unimpeded flow" of at least 40% between February and June. The Public Works report notes that adoption of the Bay Delta Plan would reduce the amount of Tuolumne River water available during dry years to Peninsula cities like Palo Alto, which get their water from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission through the Hetch Hetchy system.

The San Francisco PUC has publicly opposed the plan, characterizing it as a threat to the region's water supplies.

"The decision to support the Bay Delta Plan reaffirmed council's commitment to reduce the city's dependence on imported water," the report states. "Water reuse is one of a limited number of water-supply alternatives to imported water," the report states.

As part of the agreement, Palo Alto would gain assurance that if its water allotment falls short -- either because of a drought or because of new state regulations -- it would be able to tap into Valley Water's water supplies.

The deal would also bring new revenue to Palo Alto and its wastewater plant partners. Once Valley Water installs the necessary pipelines to transfer the treated wastewater, it would pay $1 million annually to the cities. That funding would be distributed based on how much effluent each city has contributed to the plant.

At a meeting of the Utilities Advisory Committee earlier this month, staff from Public Works and Utilities departments touted the environmental benefits of the proposed partnership with the Water District. For one thing, the deal would cut down waste: In 2018, the plant treated 19,447 acre-feet of wastewater, of which 96% was discharged to the bay and the remainder was used for irrigation in Palo Alto and Mountain View.

Phil Bobel, assistant director in the Public Works Department, also said the new plant would cut the salt levels in the treated water by half, from the current level of 800 parts per million to about 400 parts per million. As such, it would assuage concerns from irrigators that the current recycled water would harm redwood trees and other sensitive plants.

Karla Dailey, senior resource planner at the Utilities Department, highlighted the value of having another supplier that the city can turn to if for some reason the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has to reduce its allotment to Palo Alto. The city currently gets about 10 million gallons per day from the system.

"It's another tool that Palo Alto would have in its tool-belt down the road as the future unfolds and as we see what happens with climate change and regulations and the state and all the other things that will not be known for a while," Dailey said.

The city's proposed agreement with Valley Water is the latest example of Palo Alto's increasingly regional approach to planning for future water supply. Palo Alto serves on a recently formed Joint Recycled Water Advisory Committee, which also includes Mountain View and East Palo Alto. Also, it has recently agreed to shift some of its allocations of Hetch Hetchy water to East Palo Alto, where supply challenges temporarily halted development.

Gary Kremen, Palo Alto's representative on the Valley Water board of directors, lauded the deal and said the most important thing Palo Alto would get is a "guaranteed call option to our diverse water supply," which includes water from various regional systems, some spanning as far as Redding. The city will also get the assurance of knowing that its recycled water is pure enough to be safe for local trees, Kremen said.

"What is the value of being able to assure that Palo Alto's foliage and trees are there? You cannot pay enough for that -- unless you're anti-trees," Kremen said.

The commission largely approved the tentative plans, though Chair Michael Danaher urged staff from the city and the water district to include some assurances in the contract that would not only guarantee the water supply but also ensure a reasonable price. Because both entities are public agencies, the water would be sold "at cost," with neither agency making a profit.

Palo Alto and Valley Water aren't the only entities taking a more aggressive approach on recycled water. Los Angeles is moving ahead with a $2 billion project to recycle water and make it potable, with the goal of reducing its imported water by 35% and aid the city's goal of recycling all of its wastewater by 2035, according to the staff report.

San Diego is moving ahead with a recycled-water project under the Pure Water San Diego Program that would provide roughly a third of the city's water supply by 2035.

The Los Angeles effort focuses on "indirect potable reuse," in which water is purified by going through an environmental buffer such as a groundwater basin (this is in contrast to "direct potable reuse" systems, in which treated wastewater goes directly to the water-distribution system). The San Diego project, also considered "indirect potable reuse," calls for water detention at a surface reservoir before it goes to the water distribution system.

Commissioner Lisa Forssell lauded the new Palo Alto proposal, which she said both looks out for the city's interests and considers the needs of the larger region.

"If we aren't using our effluent and there are others in the region who can turn effluent into a valuable water resource, that's something that's worth pursuing," Forssell said.

The City Council will discuss the proposed agreements this Monday.

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Comments

13 people like this
Posted by CCW
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Sep 19, 2019 at 11:09 am

There is definitely an “ick” factor here. Using treated wastewater for plants is one thing, having us drink it a whole other. Not looking forward to that.


2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2019 at 11:16 am

I would love to see desalination plants along the coast, something similar to what they do in Israel.


9 people like this
Posted by Old Joe
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 19, 2019 at 11:21 am

Too many people using too much water made this inevitable.
More housing, more people, more jobs,...... it will only get worse.
Trash and sewage management will become unmanageable within the next decade (ref. State decaf also report on infrastructure, - findings and conclusions)


1 person likes this
Posted by Old Joe
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 19, 2019 at 11:23 am

SB:
(ref. State Decadal report on infrastructure, - findings and conclusions


11 people like this
Posted by Idea Guy
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2019 at 11:31 am

How about all new construction have one water line for toilet flushing and landscape irrigation and one for everything else (drinking, bathing, clothes & dish washing)? Bring both lines out to meter area. For the moment, connect the two together. In the future, as recycled water service is available, connect the lines as appropriate. This would especially make sense in new housing developments. The state has limited water resources. Toilet flushing and landscaping irrigation are the big users, so with only a little cost impact, get ready to use recycled water the right way.


2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2019 at 11:48 am

No need to use for potable water for a while. The need is to support irrigation for lawns-- at some point, regulations should require all lawn watering to be recycled water. (Getting the salt content down is critical.) . For the time being, let's irrigate the low-hanging fruit-- all the lawns in industrial parks, parks, golf courses, etc. Also, start using the water for the street cleaners, which now use tiny amounts of water.


2 people like this
Posted by Staying Young Through Kids
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 19, 2019 at 12:31 pm

Staying Young Through Kids is a registered user.

I'm not sure why anyone would have an issue with this, although I agree there is a minor "Ick factor".

Properly treated water from nearly any source can be potable and safe for whatever use might be decided (including consumption from the tap).

Remember, the International Space Station has been using & reusing the same water for years!


3 people like this
Posted by Excessive H2O Use Can Be Reduced Somewhat
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 19, 2019 at 1:02 pm

> Toilet flushing and landscaping irrigation are the big users, so with only a little cost impact, get ready to use recycled water the right way.

Toilet flushing cannot be helped...on the other hand, eliminating golf courses & cemeteries would go a long way towards reducing irrigation water needs as would excessive outdoor landscaping.

Reduce the number of athletic fields as well by consolidating the sports usage applications.




3 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2019 at 1:17 pm

Posted by Excessive H2O Use Can Be Reduced Somewhat

>> on the other hand, eliminating golf courses & cemeteries would go a long way towards reducing irrigation water needs as would excessive outdoor landscaping.

>> Reduce the number of athletic fields as well by consolidating the sports usage applications.

Alternatively, perhaps we could -increase- utilization of outdoor sports fields by properly irrigating them with reclaimed water.


5 people like this
Posted by Ron
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 19, 2019 at 3:05 pm

Last week, I saw a fireman washing what look like his personal car in the back area of the fire station. To me, that’s wasteful water use.


4 people like this
Posted by chavey
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 19, 2019 at 4:03 pm

Recycling water is the way to go. Treated water may have a higher salinity (see Web Link).

If the state of california was actually doing its job and reducing the amount of water waste in agricultural use.

agriculture gets 62 percent, urban water users 16 percent, and environmental purposes 22 percent.
see Web Link

What would make more sense is for cities to get water sent to farms and then treat it and send it back to agriculture. Cities may even be able to make a buck or two from that.



11 people like this
Posted by Resident Recycler
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 19, 2019 at 4:30 pm

I think recycled water is a great idea.
How much is the new Stanford Hospital and University expansion currently using?


7 people like this
Posted by Resident Recycler
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 19, 2019 at 4:36 pm

@ Cheny - wouldn't it make more sense to simply limit population growth?

Ideally, there should be a way to enforce all new developments (commercial and residential) to only be piped with only recycled water, and install an RO system.
This includes all the new construction homes which are replacing our neighborhood homes.
And (for the last time since I raised awareness of this issue back in 2008) - please stop pumping out our existing groundwater for residents to have luxuries like lap pools and wine cellars.


3 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2019 at 5:55 pm

Posted by Resident Recycler, a resident of Old Palo Alto

>> wouldn't it make more sense to simply limit population growth?

Certainly a factor, but, there will have to be reductions in water use anyway as a result of climate change, so, we need to get smarter about water use and look at the whole system.


8 people like this
Posted by Resident Recycler
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 19, 2019 at 9:32 pm

Hetch-Hetchy was never built to service this many people in the first place.
We were on groundwater when my family moved here.

It is really a shame that that the groundwater intensive "server farms" of high tech businesses can't use a system like this for their evaporative cooling systems.
They are pumping the earth dry to store our meaningless photos, videos, and online games into their freshwater cooled "cloud" servers.

Wasn't this recycled water program originally termed "Toilet to the Tap"?

I wish they could pipe it all the way to data centers and make them use it.


Like this comment
Posted by Steven A.
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 19, 2019 at 9:41 pm

Sure, I can't imagine people have a problem with drinking their own waste water.


Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 20, 2019 at 3:16 am

I'll have a spare set of pipes when Palo Alto cuts off my methane.


10 people like this
Posted by A Moral Compass
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 20, 2019 at 7:20 am

A Moral Compass is a registered user.

> Hetch-Hetchy was never built to service this many people in the first place.
We were on groundwater when my family moved here.

^^^Correct. We actually have access to groundwater via an old sump pump BUT a water sample was tested several years back & it is not suitable for drinking due to certain contaminants that have accrued over the past six decades.

As a result, the water is only suitable for basic landscape irrigation (i.e. lawn, shrubs, groundcover etc.).

We do not use it for our seasonal vegetable garden or fruits


2 people like this
Posted by Cathy
a resident of another community
on Sep 20, 2019 at 11:38 am

San Diego's Pure Water program is considered to be indirect potable reuse, not direct potable reuse. The purified water will have a period of detention in a surface water reservoir which is an environmental barrier. Please update the article accordingly. For more information, see www.purewatersd.org. Thank you.


Like this comment
Posted by London
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 20, 2019 at 11:56 am

London is a registered user.

I have been told that water in London is recycled and has been for years. It gets used about three times . Tastes fine to me.


2 people like this
Posted by Gennady Sheyner
Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Sep 20, 2019 at 11:56 am

Gennady Sheyner is a registered user.

Cathy,

Thank you for the correction and sorry for the error. I updated the story accordingly.


6 people like this
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside
on Sep 20, 2019 at 1:46 pm

Toilet to tap is disgusting. No thanks, Palo Alto!


2 people like this
Posted by Sophie
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 20, 2019 at 9:47 pm

Wastewater has been and is treated to be drinkable water in Singapore, because it has very limited groundwater. Some Coca Cola plants in Asia treat wastewater to be qualified to produce their products since 2000. This type of water conservation is considered environmental best practice.


Like this comment
Posted by friend from Singapore
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 22, 2019 at 9:52 pm

@Sophie, funny you should mention Singapore. I was just with a friend from Singapore. He asked me whether he should pour the tea kettle water through the Britta filter first or pour the filtered water into the tea kettle and boil it so he could have a glass of water. He said "At home we boil it then put it through the Britta filter." Ick


3 people like this
Posted by Native Californian
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 23, 2019 at 11:45 am

This while people in charge, our state legislators, allow millions of gallons of fresh precious water to flow into the ocean every year. It used to be fresh water was used for the people and wastewater pumped out. Now the reverse is true. Ask them why.


2 people like this
Posted by Becca
a resident of another community
on Sep 23, 2019 at 12:13 pm

Have you been to Orange County? If your answer is yes, then you have drank recycled water. They have been doing it there since 1964!! What do you think mother nature days with our water. There is no new water. This planet's water is finite and just keeps getting recycled over and over. Purified recycled water just speeds up the process!


Like this comment
Posted by Rick
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 23, 2019 at 3:15 pm

@Native Californian: Water flowing into the ocean isn't wasted, despite comments supporting that belief by our ignorant President. A whole host of organisms in San Francisco Bay, and the Delta, for example, depend on that influx of fresh water for their survival. You wouldn't want to live next to the Bay with that flow of water cut off.


3 people like this
Posted by Hetch hetchy
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 23, 2019 at 8:17 pm

When we moved here years ago, a selling point of Palo Alto, and SF, for that matter, was the high quality Hetch hetchy water. I’d like to keep that, not mix with bad tasting groundwater or change to recycled water. San Jose water is not particularly nice.


7 people like this
Posted by HUTCH 7.62
a resident of Portola Valley
on Sep 24, 2019 at 8:57 am

California is just becoming a 3rd world country. Look around, and wake up. We simply cannot maintain the exploding population in this state. Drinking PooPoo water is just the next step.

Sure we could build Desalination plants, But where is the money gonna come from, more taxes? We already know where the money is being squandered but those who run the state are more interested in absolute power than it own citizens.

Until Californians wake up and get involved, these sort of shenanigans will continue.


1 person likes this
Posted by HUTCH 7.62
a resident of Portola Valley
on Sep 24, 2019 at 9:20 am

@Native Californian: Water flowing into the ocean isn't wasted, despite comments supporting that belief by our ignorant President. A whole host of organisms in San Francisco Bay, and the Delta, for example, depend on that influx of fresh water for their survival. You wouldn't want to live next to the Bay with that flow of water cut off.

So what happened 125 years ago when the rivers and creeks went dry every summer, historically California has always been semi arid. Tell me? and don’t ignore history.


5 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 24, 2019 at 9:34 am

Annette is a registered user.

The "ick factor" on this is significant and should this idea become a reality it will, I suspect, result in higher sales of bottled water which is sold in plastic bottles. So much for reducing landfill, Palo Alto. . .


7 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 24, 2019 at 10:12 am

Gee, who could have guessed that the relentless push for growth would come to this. Remember, ABAG's pushing to add another 3,000,000 MORE people to the Bay Area in the next few years. And Palo Alto continues to add more ridiculous and costly road furniture and bulb-outs to make gridlock even worse.


3 people like this
Posted by Resident Recycler
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 24, 2019 at 5:03 pm

Many people who are new to the US use bottled water like Crystal Geyser.
They claim it makes their rice taste better.
They either don't care about the massive amount of waste they are making, or just haven't been educated in conservation.
Recycling and conservation were taught at PAUSD in the mid 70's.
I was so proud that my city was one of the first to have a recycling center and push this concept.
Decades ago we had had to show patience and teach people (visiting grad students and a small number of newcomers) from "Out-of-state" about this concept, but now we are dealing with world.
Our tap water surpasses many other communities - both in the US, India, and Asia.


2 people like this
Posted by Kenny
a resident of University South
on Sep 24, 2019 at 6:34 pm

"Many people who are new to the US use bottled water like Crystal Geyser.
They claim it makes their rice taste better.
They either don't care about the massive amount of waste they are making, or just haven't been educated in conservation."

Perhaps they simply want their rice to taste good?

"Our tap water surpasses many other communities - both in the US, India, and Asia."

That's not saying much.

Maybe it is just me, but I would rather drink water that people haven't peed or pooped in.


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 24, 2019 at 8:52 pm

The Tap water is not the same as it was 30 ago....We won't drink it. Why take a chance.


8 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 24, 2019 at 9:01 pm

Palo Alto's managed to do Marie Antoinette one better than her "Let them eat cake."


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