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As population grows, East Palo Alto questions fairness of water allotment proposal

By Georgia Wells | 1 Dec 2010

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The Tuolumne River supplies much of the water in the Bay Area. (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons, Wikipedia).

A proposal to allocate water supplies in the San Francisco Bay Area has angered East Palo Alto officials, who say it fails to reward low consumption and is based on how much water the city needed decades ago.

East Palo Alto’s population has more than doubled since it incorporated in June 1983. Yet, a draft plan by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission assigns the city 1.96 million gallons per day — a share equal to the low supply guarantee the commission set for the city in 1984.

By contrast, based on the same formula, the neighboring city of Palo Alto is assigned 14.66 million gallons per day under the proposal, even more than the projected need.

“It seems to me that your plan does not treat everyone equitably,” ML Gordon, East Palo Alto’s interim city manager, told the commission at a Nov. 8 meeting. “I would like the commission to consider how you reward people for doing what we all need to do—conserve.” East Palo Alto consumes less water per capita than any of the 26 other communities that the public utilities commission serves.

Several jurisdictions, including San Jose and Daly City, have joined East Palo Alto in favoring an earlier proposal that based water allocations on future need projections.

The San Francisco-based commission is calculating how many gallons of water a day each of the cities should be allocated over the next eight years. The size of these shares matters, since the commission has set an upper limit on regional water use. If the cities collectively exceed 265 million gallons daily, the offending parties will face heavy surcharges.

City managers are scrambling to ensure their allocation leaves wiggle room. A number of city representatives attended the commission’s Nov. 8 meeting to discuss the most recent proposal.

The commission last determined supply shares 26 years ago. With the expiration of the contract last year, the panel has been looking at different approaches; its most recent draft proposal set shares either based on 1984 levels or on projected demand plus 10 percent—whichever was lower.

East Palo Alto Mayor David Woods and City Councilman Ruben Abrica complained in an open letter to the commission that the latest plan “creates an unrealistic, unsustainable and unfair burden on East Palo Alto. … We exemplify environmental conservation. Our residents, some of the poorest in the Bay Area, cannot afford and should not pay a (surcharge) for exceeding the Interim Supply Allocation.”

Last year, the cities the commission serves said they wanted their water needs met through 2030. But wary of a long-term supply commitment, the panel decided to provide 264 million gallons a day through 2018, without a guarantee to increase supply assurances past 2018, according to Steve Ritchie, an assistant general manager for the commission.

“We stuck to 264 million gallons per day, because we want everybody in the system to see how much they can do with local supplies of recycled water, local groundwater and conservation,” Ritchie said, adding that the commission may also organize a system to allow communities to trade supply allocations.

“The likelihood of the cities exceeding 265 million gallons per day is small at current rates, but that’s cold comfort if the economy picks up,” Ritchie said.

Commission President Francesca Vietor said the panel should consider a tiered pricing structure, perhaps based on per capita consumption, at its next meeting. “From a conservation perspective, I like the idea of being able to reward, not penalize, conservation,” she said.

The commission meets again Dec. 14 to review the draft proposals ahead of a Dec. 31 deadline. In March, the commission will discuss what surcharge rates to impose on communities that exceed their allocations.

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