News

Keeping an eye on drought, Palo Alto approves water management plan

New document weighs challenges caused by droughts, restrictions in Bay-Delta Plan

The Palo Alto City Council approved a new Urban Water Management Plan, which includes a list of measures that the city would take to reduce its water usage, on June 7, 2021. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

When the Palo Alto City Council publicly backed the Bay-Delta Plan in 2018, it was swimming against the political tide.

The plan, formally known as the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary plan, sets limits on how much water agencies can siphon from the three tributaries of the San Joaquin River. While it aims to protect salmon, steelhead and other river species, it has also attracted intense opposition and litigation from water districts that claim that the new restrictions will undermine the reliability of their water supply.

The council's decision to endorse the plan was lauded by local environmentalists, even as it runs counter to the recommendation from Utilities Department staff and against the warnings of its own water supplier, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. By the commission's projection, the combination of the Bay-Delta Plan and a drought would require the agencies it supplies to reduce their water by 50%.

This extreme scenario is among those contemplated in Palo Alto's new Urban Water Management Plan, which the council unanimously approved on Monday night. The document, which the city is required by state law to update every five years, includes a list of alternative supply sources as well as measures that the city would take to reduce water usage — from water audits and the distribution of low-flow showerheads to drought surcharges, a prohibition on sprinklers and a ban on car washing outside a car wash that uses recycled water.

The city already has some experience with droughts, having reduced its water usage by about 31% in 2015 through various measures, including limiting landscape irrigation to twice a week. But council member Greg Tanaka noted that some of the most extreme proposals in the new water plan go "above and beyond what we've ever done before."

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"I think members of the public would be very surprised to see this kind of a dramatic cutback needed," Tanaka said.

In presenting the plan, Karla Dailey, senior resource planner in the Utilities Department, noted that the document does not commit the city to any particular restriction and that the council will have the option of adding additional methods for conserving water if needed.

"We take water demand management very seriously here in Palo Alto and given the dryness of the state that we're all witnessing firsthand, you will see an increase in outreach and education for the utility around demand management and the programs that we offer," Dailey said.

Some believe the scenario requiring 50% water reduction is highly unlikely. Peter Drekmeier, policy director at Tuolumne River Trust and former Palo Alto mayor, noted that the SFPUC's projection is based on an extremely conservative scenario known as a "design drought" — a hypothetical dry-spell stretching for eight-and-a-half years that the commission is using for planning purposes. Drekmeier noted in a letter that this scenario "shifts some of the rationing that would be required in the later years into the earlier years, making rationing appear much more severe than it needs to be."

He told the council Monday that the SFPUC's projections have been off by an average of 22% over the last 20 years.

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"Demand projections are almost always inflated," Drekmeier said.

He requested that Palo Alto submit a letter to the SFPUC asking it to consider an alternative with a shorter design drought. The council agreed to the proposal by a 5-2 vote, with council members Alison Cormack and Tanaka dissenting.

The plan notes that given the city's forecasted water demand and the SFPUC's projections of water supply availability, the city "anticipates the need to implement water use reductions of nearly 50% in the first dry year post Bay Delta Plan implementation." At the same time, the existing agreement between the SFPUC and its wholesale partners requires the commission to discuss additional strategies for reducing water use before it implements water reductions exceeding 20%.

Nicole Sandkulla, CEO of the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, which represents Palo Alto and 25 other agencies in purchasing water from the SFPUC, suggested that if the Bay-Delta Plan takes effect, there may be a period of time during a significant drought where the agencies may be subject to the severe restrictions while they're working to find other supply alternatives.

"That's a significant impact to our water supply and our water supply reliability," Sandkulla said of the Bay-Delta Plan.

Palo Alto, for its part, has a few other options to turn to if the SFPUC tightens the spigot. In 2019, the city entered into an agreement with the Valley Water, Santa Clara County's main water supplier, for construction of a water treatment facility for nonpotable water at the Regional Water Quality Control Plant. The deal includes a provision that gives Palo Alto the option of buying potable or nonpotable water from the water district.

Other options that the city can tap on during an extreme drought is its five wells — which are currently in "standby" mode — and groundwater, which the city has not pumped since 1991, according to the plan. While it is "not a planned future water supply source, groundwater is an available alternative that is evaluated and reviewed on a regular basis."

Despite the state's dry spell, Vice Mayor Pat Burt saw some signs of encouragement in the city's record of conservation: namely, its ability to use less water even as population continues to grow. According to the new report, Palo Alto's water sales decreased by 11% between 2010 and 2015, dropping from 11,375 acre feet per year to 10,177 acre feet (though usage did go up by 5% in the next five years, as the state emerged from the drought).

"In our community, there's often a misconception that we don't have adequate water allocation for population growth and that our water usage just keeps going up in proportion of population growth," Burt said. "The reverse has happened over a 30-year period pretty steadily."

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Keeping an eye on drought, Palo Alto approves water management plan

New document weighs challenges caused by droughts, restrictions in Bay-Delta Plan

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Tue, Jun 8, 2021, 12:47 am

When the Palo Alto City Council publicly backed the Bay-Delta Plan in 2018, it was swimming against the political tide.

The plan, formally known as the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary plan, sets limits on how much water agencies can siphon from the three tributaries of the San Joaquin River. While it aims to protect salmon, steelhead and other river species, it has also attracted intense opposition and litigation from water districts that claim that the new restrictions will undermine the reliability of their water supply.

The council's decision to endorse the plan was lauded by local environmentalists, even as it runs counter to the recommendation from Utilities Department staff and against the warnings of its own water supplier, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. By the commission's projection, the combination of the Bay-Delta Plan and a drought would require the agencies it supplies to reduce their water by 50%.

This extreme scenario is among those contemplated in Palo Alto's new Urban Water Management Plan, which the council unanimously approved on Monday night. The document, which the city is required by state law to update every five years, includes a list of alternative supply sources as well as measures that the city would take to reduce water usage — from water audits and the distribution of low-flow showerheads to drought surcharges, a prohibition on sprinklers and a ban on car washing outside a car wash that uses recycled water.

The city already has some experience with droughts, having reduced its water usage by about 31% in 2015 through various measures, including limiting landscape irrigation to twice a week. But council member Greg Tanaka noted that some of the most extreme proposals in the new water plan go "above and beyond what we've ever done before."

"I think members of the public would be very surprised to see this kind of a dramatic cutback needed," Tanaka said.

In presenting the plan, Karla Dailey, senior resource planner in the Utilities Department, noted that the document does not commit the city to any particular restriction and that the council will have the option of adding additional methods for conserving water if needed.

"We take water demand management very seriously here in Palo Alto and given the dryness of the state that we're all witnessing firsthand, you will see an increase in outreach and education for the utility around demand management and the programs that we offer," Dailey said.

Some believe the scenario requiring 50% water reduction is highly unlikely. Peter Drekmeier, policy director at Tuolumne River Trust and former Palo Alto mayor, noted that the SFPUC's projection is based on an extremely conservative scenario known as a "design drought" — a hypothetical dry-spell stretching for eight-and-a-half years that the commission is using for planning purposes. Drekmeier noted in a letter that this scenario "shifts some of the rationing that would be required in the later years into the earlier years, making rationing appear much more severe than it needs to be."

He told the council Monday that the SFPUC's projections have been off by an average of 22% over the last 20 years.

"Demand projections are almost always inflated," Drekmeier said.

He requested that Palo Alto submit a letter to the SFPUC asking it to consider an alternative with a shorter design drought. The council agreed to the proposal by a 5-2 vote, with council members Alison Cormack and Tanaka dissenting.

The plan notes that given the city's forecasted water demand and the SFPUC's projections of water supply availability, the city "anticipates the need to implement water use reductions of nearly 50% in the first dry year post Bay Delta Plan implementation." At the same time, the existing agreement between the SFPUC and its wholesale partners requires the commission to discuss additional strategies for reducing water use before it implements water reductions exceeding 20%.

Nicole Sandkulla, CEO of the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, which represents Palo Alto and 25 other agencies in purchasing water from the SFPUC, suggested that if the Bay-Delta Plan takes effect, there may be a period of time during a significant drought where the agencies may be subject to the severe restrictions while they're working to find other supply alternatives.

"That's a significant impact to our water supply and our water supply reliability," Sandkulla said of the Bay-Delta Plan.

Palo Alto, for its part, has a few other options to turn to if the SFPUC tightens the spigot. In 2019, the city entered into an agreement with the Valley Water, Santa Clara County's main water supplier, for construction of a water treatment facility for nonpotable water at the Regional Water Quality Control Plant. The deal includes a provision that gives Palo Alto the option of buying potable or nonpotable water from the water district.

Other options that the city can tap on during an extreme drought is its five wells — which are currently in "standby" mode — and groundwater, which the city has not pumped since 1991, according to the plan. While it is "not a planned future water supply source, groundwater is an available alternative that is evaluated and reviewed on a regular basis."

Despite the state's dry spell, Vice Mayor Pat Burt saw some signs of encouragement in the city's record of conservation: namely, its ability to use less water even as population continues to grow. According to the new report, Palo Alto's water sales decreased by 11% between 2010 and 2015, dropping from 11,375 acre feet per year to 10,177 acre feet (though usage did go up by 5% in the next five years, as the state emerged from the drought).

"In our community, there's often a misconception that we don't have adequate water allocation for population growth and that our water usage just keeps going up in proportion of population growth," Burt said. "The reverse has happened over a 30-year period pretty steadily."

Comments

James Felix Cook
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jun 8, 2021 at 8:47 am
James Felix Cook, College Terrace
Registered user
on Jun 8, 2021 at 8:47 am

Thanks to our Palo Alto City Council for their action on this critically important issue!


Peter Drekmeier
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jun 8, 2021 at 8:50 am
Peter Drekmeier, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jun 8, 2021 at 8:50 am

The bottom line is that rationing numbers could be almost anything, depending on policy decisions. At current demand, the SFPUC and its customers could make it through a repeat of the worst drought on record (1987-92) with the Bay Delta Plan in place without requiring any rationing or developing any new water supplies, such as recycled water. With reasonable rationing (no more than 20%), we could make it through seven years of the Design Drought. By bringing a modest amount of alternative water supplies online, we could make it through a 7.5-year Design Drought.


Dave Warner
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jun 8, 2021 at 9:02 am
Dave Warner, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jun 8, 2021 at 9:02 am

It's good to see the city council and Palo Alto continuing to take a leadership roll in driving solutions that both provide our needed water supply and meet the needs of the Yosemite (Hetch Hetchy) ecosystem in ways consistent with leading experts views. And of course this couldn't have been done without our community's wonderful efforts to respect, appreciate and conserve our precious water.


theAlex
Registered user
Midtown
on Jun 8, 2021 at 9:10 am
theAlex, Midtown
Registered user
on Jun 8, 2021 at 9:10 am

This is a manufactured crisis. We have avoided taxing corporations and the rich enough to support the proper water infrastructure.

The solution is to tax the rich and corporations and improve the water infrastructure and technology, NOT conservation.

Mr. Zuck over there could easily fix the problem. Why don't we sit him down and have a nice talk with him and other rich who don't pay enough taxes.

I can't believe we are fussing over such an important part of life: WATER! Screw the conservation BS and fix the problem!!!!!

What's next, going on a diet to conserve food? What kind of logic is that?

I will NOT conserve water. In fact, I'll be using more water.


MBH
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 8, 2021 at 9:22 am
MBH, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Jun 8, 2021 at 9:22 am


Two things concern me after reading Gennady's article.

The first is the somewhat optimistic attitude about growth and water usage in a drought. Especially since the drought that we are experiencing now will continue until atmospheric CO2 and Global Warming are brought under control. It’s not going to get better any time soon at the rate we’re going.

The second is the assumption that we can begin pumping groundwater again. On consequence of groundwater extraction is that the land sinks. It seems to me, in light of the global increase in sea level, that lowering Palo Alto’s or the Bay Area's ground level might be something we don’t want to do.


Patti Regehr
Registered user
Palo Verde
on Jun 8, 2021 at 9:31 am
Patti Regehr, Palo Verde
Registered user
on Jun 8, 2021 at 9:31 am

Thank you to the City Council and to the staff for taking positive steps towards taking care of the water needs of our community and at the same time taking steps towards taking care of the needs of our earth.


felix
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 8, 2021 at 9:39 am
felix, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jun 8, 2021 at 9:39 am

Palo Alto continues to make rationale decisions about water use, remaining realistic about this issue that can be politically fraught.
Thanks to the 5 on Council that by doing so reinforce City policy - the Bay Delta Plan.

That Councilmember Cormack, our so-called Representative to the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, voted otherwise was utterly predictable and in denial of the science. She only Represents herself.


Judith Wasserman
Registered user
Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 8, 2021 at 10:34 am
Judith Wasserman, Leland Manor/Garland Drive
Registered user
on Jun 8, 2021 at 10:34 am

When the City says "groundwater", I always wonder which aquifer they tap into. Basements dewater the 8 ft and sometimes at the 15 ft aquifer, neither of which are potable. Are the City wells at 200 ft? Pumping at that level will not cause much subsidence.
I would also ask the City to cut down the basement dewatering to control subsidence until we get enough rain to replenish the upper aquifers.


Local Resident
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 8, 2021 at 10:54 am
Local Resident, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Jun 8, 2021 at 10:54 am

Lets start by reusing 100% of the basement dewatering during construction including the Public Safety Building. That water could be going to water our parks instead of using tap water.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 8, 2021 at 12:18 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jun 8, 2021 at 12:18 pm

How about declaring a moratorium on office construction until this historic drought's over?

How about Planning Director Mr. Lait and the City Attorney incorporate figures on the drought into the appeal against the absurd ABAG housing targets since more people will obviously require existing residents and business to cut water usage even more drastically?

A reminder that whenever the city's pushed for water conservation and the drought ends,. they've historically delayed removing the drought surcharge for MONTHS after the state declared the crisis was over AND they justified the next rate hike because we conserved too much! Let's avoid a repeat if this and not give CPAU yet more excuses to rip us off. (By the way, where are our settlements from the class action suits from CPAU's overcharges. Tick tock.)


W. Reller
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jun 8, 2021 at 3:49 pm
W. Reller, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jun 8, 2021 at 3:49 pm

SFPUC's projections have been off by an average of 22% over the last 20 years. The SFPUC must produce an appendix for inclusion in the Urban Water Management Plan analyzing a shorter, 7.5-year Design Drought.
This would allow water providers to reference the appendix should the SFPUC remove a year from the Design Drought, in the future.
The SFPUC and its customers could repeat of the worst drought on record, with the Bay Delta Plan in place without requiring any rationing or developing any new water supplies, such as recycled water.
With less than 20% rationing, we could make it through seven years of the Design Drought. By bringing a modest amount of alternative water supplies online, we could make it through a 7.5-year Design Drought.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 9, 2021 at 7:04 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jun 9, 2021 at 7:04 am

We have the very odd situation where most of us have been at home much more for the past 15 months than we have been elsewhere. This means at the very least more flushes at home. As a consequence, the number of flushes in each of our schools, our office buildings, our restaurants, etc. are way down. Of course, each individual person has been doing the same number of flushes but it is the venue of these flushes that has changed.

So if households have used more water it is because we are at home. I am will to follow this that schools, offices and businesses have used less water.

If people go back to school, to work in offices, to eat in restaurants, to attend churches and gyms, the amount of household water used will go down and the amount used by work places and public places will go up.


rita vrhel
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jun 9, 2021 at 3:58 pm
rita vrhel, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jun 9, 2021 at 3:58 pm

I am so please the City Council majority voted to support this water conservation plan and for Mr. Drekmeier for keeping us informed of critical water issues.

Also to those of who who realize dewatering or extracting groundwater for residential basements during a serious drought is counterproductive.

In the past hundreds of millions of gallons of water have been "pumped and dumped" at NO COST to the developer. Save Palo Alto's Groundwater has been raising this issue for years. This year we have, yet again, presented ideas to Public Works to significantly limit groundwater extraction and waste yet still allow for underground construction. It can be done!

Please join us in asking Public Works to present our recommendations to the City Council and for the City Council to implement. The few do not have the right to waste what belongs to us all: community groundwater. Thank you.


Chris Zaharias
Registered user
another community
on Jun 10, 2021 at 6:43 am
Chris Zaharias, another community
Registered user
on Jun 10, 2021 at 6:43 am

I don’t live in the area anymore, but maybe some enterprising person could rent 5-20 water trucks and build a business to irrigate large PA yards with reclaimed water? There’s certainly a market for it.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 10, 2021 at 9:54 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jun 10, 2021 at 9:54 am

@Chris Zaharias, at least 2 companies whose names I forget are advertising those services. Great minds, etc.


bcarlitz
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jun 10, 2021 at 11:14 am
bcarlitz, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jun 10, 2021 at 11:14 am

Purple Pipes is a Palo Alto company I've employed for the last
few years to supply groundwater and/or reclaimed water for my garden.


Stepheny
Registered user
Midtown
on Jun 11, 2021 at 10:33 am
Stepheny , Midtown
Registered user
on Jun 11, 2021 at 10:33 am

Water shortage and continuing drought. Yet another reason to curtail new residential building in Palo Alto and the Peninsula.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 11, 2021 at 11:32 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jun 11, 2021 at 11:32 am

And also to curtail building more offices that will cause ABAG to try to increase PA's housing targets even more while ignoring the historical drought, fire risks, the changes in work patterns and that space is now highly preferable to density.

Lots of articles on the national trends and how desirable rural communities have seen their prices soar as people escape density and congestion.

Re what's desirable, for the first time in recent memory, yesterday I saw an ad for a PA condo near Molly Stone's for under $1 million.


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