Empty water spigot with cobwebs

Water shortage in East Palo Alto and construction is put on hold

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East Palo Alto is ripe for development but needs water

East Palo Alto, California is a prime spot for development with inexpensive real estate and a reasonable 15-mile commute to Cupertino, CA, home of Apple and Hewlett-Packard and nearby Facebook in Palo Alto. Construction should be roaring here–but it isn’t. Poor planning in the 1980’s has caught up. What’s the problem?

East Palo Alto is out of water. 

Lack of water catches up with East Palo Alto

We’ve been warned that in the next 30 years there will be an acute water shortage unless we make improvements soon. East Palo Alto doesn’t have to wait 30 years–the problem exists right now.

The root of the water shortage problems date back to the early 1980’s when East Palo Alto was an unincorporated portion of San Mateo County. It became the landing spot for a lot of “undesirable” businesses–the hazardous materials recycling plant and auto dismantlers were located there.

The San Francisco Public Utility Commission (SFPUC) was responsible for dividing up their water allocation amongst 26 recipients. East Palo Alto got the smallest piece. It seemed like an adequate amount of water at the time, but times and requirements have changed. 

East Palo Alto has been using up every drop of it’s 1.96 million gallons per day allocation for the past 15 years. That works out to a meager 57 gallons per day per person.  Thousands of new jobs are predicted with more construction and there is just no room for further water use.

Moratorium on building

Millions of square feet of commercial construction in East Palo Alto have been put on hold because there isn’t enough water to support it. In July 2016 the city put a moratorium in place against any new connections to the city water supply.

When the city initiated the moratorium there were about 15 projects under consideration.  Included in that number was an affordable housing project owned by the city.  Four of the projects ultimately received approval to move to the next phase–to submit an application, but eleven of them didn’t make the cut.

Is development a good or a bad thing?

Perhaps not surprisingly, additional development would bring jobs and that would be a boon to a city with the lowest jobs-per-capita ratio in the county, and an unemployment rate that is twice the county average.

However, additional development also brings the risk of higher property values, higher rents, and generally higher costs all around. Not everyone is optimistic about that. The price of rent even now forces many people to live in basements where they are exposed to mold and pests or to squeeze too many people into limited space. Tight living quarters also leave residents exposed to more communicable diseases.

Are there plans being made for affordable housing?

While the city does have plans to add affordable housing the plan only calls for one hundred and twenty units. With thousands of new jobs projected, this won’t begin to cover the gap. Local residents are afraid that escalating costs will force them out of their homes. 

How to move forward on securing water

Securing new sources of water have been under development for years. Both Mountain View and Palo Alto have expressed a desire to help East Palo Alto.  Both have water to spare. East Palo Alto also petitioned SFPUC for an additional 1.5 million gallons per day but the application will not be addressed until 2018.

Additionally, East Palo Alto has considered using desalination or ground water, although the ground water source is not considered reliable. 

Mountain View ultimately agreed to sell 1 million gallons per day to East Palo Alto for a one-time fee of $5 million. The next step was to determine how to cover that cost. This is where Priscilla Chan and Facebook CEO husband, Mark Zuckerberg, stepped in.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative donates to guarantee water

Chan and Zuckerberg had plans to build a free private Pre K-8th grade school, The Primary School, in East Palo Alto. The website describes it as “a new integrated health and education model dedicated to serving children and families in the communities of East Palo Alto and Belle Haven.”

The Primary School needed a guarantee of water to proceed, so The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative agreed to make a $2 million donation to East Palo Alto to help secure the water allocation from Mountain View. To sweeten the offer, The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is also donating $500,000 to hire an “affordable housing manager”. The goal is to help facilitate the Affordable Housing project.  The city was also able to secure funding from the Sobrato Organization, 2020 Bay Road, The Primary School, and a portion of the General Fund. 

As a result of the Chan Zuckerberg donation, East Palo Alto signed the water transfer agreement in June of 2017. This opens up the possibilities for some of the delayed construction projects.

More water still needed

Current Water, Water Purchase Projections
Chart showing allocations and actual water purchases for utilities managed by SFPUC which could potentially sell water to East Palo Alto.

It has been estimated that East Palo Alto will need 3.5 million gallons per day by 2040. Even with an additional 1 million gallons per day from Mountain View, East Palo Alto will still be running on empty if they hit that projection. 

More needs to be done. The challenge exists on how to negotiate with neighboring communities to buy water, how to pay for it, and how to integrate new construction and development into the city without destroying the character of today’s city and forcing existing residents out. 

Clearly East Palo Alto isn’t out of the woods yet.

By: Jennifer Croft

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