Two incumbents on the Santa Clara Valley Water District Board of Directors, Gary Kremen and Tony Estremera, face challengers this November.
Kremen, whose district 7 includes Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Los Gatos, Monte Sereno and southern parts of San Jose, is going head-to-head with Rebecca Eisenberg, a Palo Alto attorney.
Valley Water is confronting multiple challenges as it tries to develop a workable strategy to keep water flowing, protect streams and control flooding now and into the county's future. The district is facing a historic drought, a federally mandated infrastructure rebuild that has sidelined Anderson Reservoir – the county's largest – and an astronomical cost increase for its planned desalination plant in Palo Alto.
While the district does not provide water to Palo Alto, which is a customer of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, it funds water-related infrastructure projects in and affecting the city. The district's annual budget is $917 million.
Kremen, a businessman, engineer and founder of the dating website Match.com, first won a seat on the board in 2014. As chairman of the district board, he worked with the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority (SFCJPA) to complete the first phase of the San Francisquito Creek flood control project in East Palo Alto in 2016.
He also supported the indefinite extension of the water district tax, Measure S, in 2020, which brings in $45.5 million annually for the Safe, Clean Water and Natural Flood Protection program. The program uses the funds for flood control, seismic upgrades and wildlife protection. Voters approved the tax measure by 75.06%.
He has supported and advocated for alternative drinking-water sources, such as purified water, to expand the county's water supply.
Kremen has also gotten into some hot water. He also voted to put Measure A on the 2022 primary ballot, a measure to extend the limit on board members' terms from three to four; the misleading ballot description drew criticism for stating the measure would "limit" the number of terms, not increase the existing number allowed.
He pulled out of the election for county tax assessor this year and temporarily removed himself from the board's chairmanship after allegations of sexual harassment. A campaign staffer accused him of sharing photos of himself and his partner nude from the waist up in bed. Kremen said on Wednesday the photo was a breastfeeding photo.
Kremen has said in news reports that the photos were part of a large Dropbox dump used to store campaign-related photos. He has said he hadn't checked to see if any were of an intimate nature. Other staffers have also accused him of bullying. He requested an independent ethics investigation to clear himself, and a preliminary summary is expected in early October.
Eisenberg has cited her long career working on business and financial teams and her work for community good as some of her qualifications for the board. She took PayPal public in 2002, merged Flip Video with Cisco in 2008, and spun Reddit off its former parent company in 2012. On the nonprofit side, Eisenberg helped launch charitable organizations including the Craigslist Foundation and Kiva.org, an international microfinance lending nonprofit.
She describes herself as a team player, "forward thinker" and a problem solver.
Growing up near the shores of Lake Michigan, Eisenberg said she has been a passionate water advocate and environmentalist her entire life. In 1983, while in high school, she conducted experimental studies on the eutrophication of Lake Michigan that became a part of the University of Wisconsin's growing body of research, she said.
The following summer, she spent three weeks in Israel working on a kibbutz at what was then the world's leading manufacturer of agricultural drip irrigation products, which gave her hands-on experience with water technologies in desert conditions.
At Stanford University, she completed the newly launched human biology curriculum, which taught pre-med biology within the context of sociological and ecological consequences of human actions, she said.
The Weekly asked both candidates for their views on four topics related to their qualifications, drought mitigation, future water planning and paying for the desalination plant in Palo Alto. Here, edited for length, are their responses:
Q: Why do you think you are the best person for the job?
EISENBERG: I have a 30-year record of successful accomplishments in Silicon Valley, working on diverse teams to achieve mutually beneficial goals. My work has changed lives by creating economic opportunity, well-paid jobs, greater equity, sustainability and fairness to employees, residents, businesspeople, and communities. Additionally, I am known for my integrity, honesty, transparency and work ethic. I am a team player, forward-thinker and problem solver who approaches challenges with a perspective of positive long-term consequences and community benefit.
KREMEN: With 12 years of water leadership and being both an engineer and a business person, I have a demonstrated track record of standing up for Palo Alto residents on water issues. An accomplishment includes jumpstarting the downstream repair of the flood prone San Francisquito Creek after a 19-year delay. Another accomplishment includes stopping the destruction of Palo Alto creeks by increasing creek cleanup while rehousing the homeless who live in these environmentally sensitive areas. Yet other accomplishments include fighting southern California/Big Agriculture water grabs, increased funding for conservation and water recycling including a $16 million direct grant for Palo Alto's wastewater treatment plant for salt removals so the water can be used for Palo Alto's redwood trees.
Q: We are in a serious drought. What is your vision for keeping the water flowing now, and into the future?
EISENBERG: The current drought is unlikely to end any time soon. Meanwhile, our existing natural water resources are quickly depleting. In California, as elsewhere, we are depleting water from rivers, aquifers, reservoirs and the ground at rates that are exponentially faster than what can be replenished. We are running out of water, and most efforts to increase short-term water supplies come with great risk to our environment and communities.
To preserve water availability for future generations, we must materially improve the way we use our existing resources. For example, currently, other communities and countries recycle the majority of their wastewater. Israel, for example, successfully recycles almost 95% of its wastewater. The technology exists to follow in their footsteps, and Valley Water has the budget to make these infrastructure improvements. But we must get to work now.
Water recycling, recapture and re-use is the most proven step forward in our drought conditions. We recognize that diverting and conveying water from elsewhere leads vulnerable and wealthy communities being deprived of water resources they rely on to survive. Tunnels, dams and other means of diversion cost billions of taxpayer dollars, potentially greatly increasing water bills while at the same time offering minimal benefit. They also irreparably harm fragile ecosystems, increasing our drought conditions by contributing to climate change. Better management of existing resources is a proven path forward.
KREMEN: The first part of my vision is to continue to expand funding for water conservation for Palo Alto residences, businesses and nonprofits. The second is being sure we have emergency water supply, which I led our board in obtaining ahead of the drought and ahead of other water districts. The third is to implement net-zero water conservation codes for new construction.
Q: What is your position on developing alternative water sources? What does that look like?
EISENBERG: I strongly favor immediate material investment into transitioning current infrastructure to modern infrastructure that will enable recycling and reuse of the majority of our wastewater.
I also believe that we need to urgently invest in infrastructure that will better enable the recapture of lost water runoff. Regrowth and regeneration of canopy and native plants also are essential elements of that process, as is, of course, vastly improved protection of existing native plants and trees.
Also, desalination has potential promise, but desalination must be done without creating harmful impacts on our natural environment and ecosystems.
KREMEN: I strongly support developing alternative water sources such as water recycling, desalination and conservation. I have voted for funding all of the above-mentioned projects (conservation and water-recycling funding; the wastewater treatment plant for salt removal, etc.) while keeping water rates reasonable. In addition, I negotiated a unique arrangement, which is in no other city in Santa Clara County, for a backup water supply for Palo Alto.
Q: The cost of building a desalination plant in Palo Alto recently rose from $20 million to an estimated $53 million. The district was to pay $16 million and Palo Alto and Mountain View would share the balance of that sum – 25% and 75% respectively. Should the district take on more of the cost? What would you envision to get the project built?
EISENBERG: I believe that the Water District needs to pay for this plant entirely and also pay for all other water treatment facilities and infrastructure. We are in urgent need of upgraded infrastructure to enable water recycling, recapture and reuse. We are running out of water, and water is not something we can make. Our best path forward is to take advantage of existing technologies that have been proven to enable better use of existing resources.
The district needs to pay in full for these projects for a number of reasons. First, infrastructure always by definition benefits the community at large far more than it benefits any specific individual or town. Second, it wastes valuable time and resources to put cities and communities in situations where they are forced to negotiate with each other for financial resources and benefits.
The district has more than ample budget to cover these expenses. Putting in context of the $2.9 billion Pacheco Dam project that my opponent and his allies on the Water District Board continue to champion, the cost of this water treatment is de minimis. Valley Water's budget has been described as $1 billion on the low end, and $10 billion dollars on the high end by sitting board directors. Add those sums to the billions of dollars of federal and state funding that was newly created by the recent Inflation Reduction Act and last year's Infrastructure Act, and it is highly likely that large grants are within reach, especially when earmarked for sustainable green infrastructure projects. Green infrastructure and green jobs are at the center of both our president's and our governor's official water policies, and we are not just able to obtain funding for these improvements, but we are instructed to do this work.
I favor a Green New Deal approach, which creates new local jobs, upgrading infrastructure to enable water recycling, recapture and reuse, and also preserving existing ecosystems and regenerating new growth where ecosystems and trees have been destroyed.
KREMEN: In the past, getting additional funds for the Palo Alto desalination plant has been challenging as the majority of the board is San Jose-focused and north county gets neglected. The good news: I think I have convinced a majority of current board members to support additional funds for Palo Alto. I am working very hard to raise even more additional money for the desalination/salt removal/pollution reduction project, including lobbying the federal and state government for additional funds.