East Palo Alto looks to wells for economic growth


East Palo Alto is at a critical juncture in its economic development, but it needs one resource in order to grow: water.

Faced with a severe shortage, the city is beginning construction on two wells that it hopes will together provide about half of East Palo Alto’s projected water needs.

The current lack of water supply means that the city cannot move forward with development projects, like housing and office space. East Palo Alto gets virtually all of its water supply from San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s Hetch Hetchy water system, and for the past 14 years, it has consumed all of its allocated water.

The shortage dates back to the city’s founding: when East Palo Alto was incorporated in 1983, it was allocated far less water than surrounding cities, a disparity that persists to today. In 2010, the SFPUC assigned East Palo Alto 1.96 million gallons per day — in contrast to the 14.66 million gallons it allocated to neighboring Palo Alto. And per capita, East Palo Alto uses far less water than the Bay Area average: less than 37 gallons used per day per resident, compared with more than 50 gallons in the broader San Francisco Bay Area.

The lack of water supply has a direct impact on the city’s growth and economy: development projects can’t be approved by the planning commission without enough water to meet code requirements. Stalled projects include 120 new affordable housing units and office space, and a plan to develop University Avenue into a vibrant mixed-use downtown. Also in limbo is The Primary School, a private school led by Priscilla Chan, wife of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

“In general, we cannot process new development projects” without water, said East Palo Alto Assistant City Manager Sean Charpentier. “For us, it’s very real.”

The city is solving the problem in two ways. It’s in the process of requesting that the SFPUC increase its allocation, but it’s also beginning construction plans on two groundwater wells: one at Gloria Way, and one at Pad D, located adjacent to the parking lot of the local Home Depot.

“The groundwater wells are critically important to us,” Charpentier said. “We don’t have emergency water storage or supply … and we need additional water to support our leadership efforts in affordable housing as well as meet our economic goals.”

It is hard to accurately predict the output of a well, Charpentier said, but the two wells are conservatively estimated to produce around 700,000 gallons a day, or half of the city’s projected need. The well water will be used for everything that the Hetch Hetchy water is currently used for: tap water, fire hydrants, municipal needs and development projects.

The Gloria Way well was used in the 1980s, but shut down when residents complained about its smell and taste, due to high concentrations of manganese in the water. But advanced filtration systems can now address that problem, Charpentier said.

The Pad D well has yet to be drilled. But initial tests indicate that aquifers below ground are productive and have good water quality.

East Palo Alto is also taking measures to ensure that its well water usage is sustainable. In November, it became the only city in San Mateo County to develop a groundwater management plan, according to Charpentier.

“We’re the smallest city, we’re the poorest city, we’re the most diverse city, and we’re the only one with a groundwater management plan,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that we operate these wells in a way that does not negatively impact the groundwater resources.”