On May 7, the Palo Alto City Council motioned to allocate the rights of 500,000 gallons daily to the city of East Palo Alto (EPA). The motion passed in a 7-1 vote, with one council member absent.
With this transfer, EPA acquired the right to purchase water from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commision (SFPUC), which was previously inaccessible to the city.
“We have acquired the allocation of this water from Palo Alto, and ultimately it’s the SFPUC through [Bay Area Water Supply & Conservation Agency] that ends up keeping the ‘tally sheet’ of who receives what amount of water,” said EPA council member Carlos Romero. “We will still need to purchase whatever water we use from BAWSCA and ultimately the SFPUC.”
The Bay Area Water Supply & Conservation Agency (BAWSCA) coordinates the allocation of water and conservation projects in Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.
East Palo Alto needs the water as it undergoes several construction projects, including new schools and low-income housing.
“Ostensibly, we’re trying to develop housing — in particular, affordable housing — [and] having access to this water will allow us to approve future projects,” Romero said.
Palo Alto authorized the SFPUC to permanently transfer the water rights, reducing Palo Alto’s supply from 17.1 million gallons a day to 16.6 million, The Mercury News reported last week.
“My main concern was really whether Palo Alto would need this water in the case of a severe drought.” said Tom DuBois, a Palo Alto council member who helped first proposed this project two years ago. “This is water that we will probably never ever need. We’ve never gotten close to this allocation.”
Despite its similar name and its nearby proximity to Palo Alto, East Palo Alto belongs to a different county and has both structural and demographic differences from Palo Alto. While Palo Alto is part of Santa Clara County, East Palo Alto is in San Mateo County.
The decision, according to DuBois, comes as an effort to address the structural inequalities between the two neighboring cities.
“East Palo Alto became a city much later and got a much smaller allocation [of water], and they were preparing to drill a lot of ground wells, and our groundwater’s all interconnected, so it just seemed like it made a lot more sense to give [the city] some high quality water in an allocation that [Palo Alto] is never going to use,” DuBois said.
Greg Tanaka, who voted against the motion, expressed his concerns about Palo Alto’s spending.
“Palo Alto is in its second year at a deficit,” Tanaka said, emphasizing the need for Palo Alto to “balance its budget” at a point of economic growth.“We need to sell assets, and one way to do that is to sell water rights.”
Tanaka also expressed concern over the needs of his own constituents in Palo Alto.
“There is this perception that everyone in Palo Alto is a billionaire, and it is just not true,” Tanaka said, citing examples of retired individuals and working-class families who are trying to put their kids through “good schools.”
Tanaka added his belief that Palo Alto should be “making sure [it] gets value for [its] assets.”
“A lot of people want to live in Palo Alto for the great schools — and they will do whatever it takes, even if it means spending most of their income on housing,” Tanaka said. “I personally believe that if you want to help out the less fortunate as much as possible, that should be an individual decision.”
EPA is also currently receiving water from nearby city Mountain View. Mountain View traditionally receives water from Santa Clara County and the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, but the city pays a fee regardless of whether or not it uses water from Hetch Hetchy. Per the agreement, EPA pays the fee that Mountain View would otherwise have paid for the water use.
“Mountain View didn’t make money on the deal, and these aren’t really rights you can buy or sell, that you can profit off of,” DuBois said. “To keep [its] Hetch Hetchy water, [Mountain View] has to take a fee whether [it] takes that water or not. Palo Alto doesn’t have to pay a fee.”
As a result, Romero claims that Mountain View has a financial incentive to pass along water allocations to EPA, so that EPA pays the water fee that Mountain View would otherwise pay.
“In the case of Palo Alto, it really was a neighbor-to-neighbor equity transaction,” Romero said.
DuBois also described other ways nearby cities are working together to conserve water, including a water recycling plant run by Palo Alto. This plant serves several surrounding cities including EPA, Mountain View, Stanford and Los Altos, he said.
“We run the plant for those cities, and we’ve been working to get East Palo Alto [a] better supply of recycled water. If you can use recycled water for watering your grass or plants, then you need to use less of the drinkable water, which also helps their allocation.”
DuBois said that Palo Alto’s decision to conduct the water transfer was influenced in part by California’s history of water allocation issues.
“The history of water allocation and water rights, it’s part of the history of California, it’s something people feel strongly about,” he added. “This was the case of social justice and, again, helping a city that’s right next to [Palo Alto], shares the same name and completely got screwed in terms of allocations of water.”
Contact Nohemi Davila at nohemi ‘at’ stanford.edu.