Simply unfair: water distribution dysfunction in Bay Area

New Housing Stymied Due to Water System Dysfunction 

archaic rules for water supply distribution have far-ranging effects

A dozen new developments in East Palo Alto, including the city's own affordable housing project, have been put on hold due to lack of a guaranteed water supply. City officials, residents and developers are all frustrated. 

The East Palo Alto City Council had no choice but to impose a moratorium on new development. The lack of guaranteed water is not due to drought, but to East Palo Alto's low "allocation" as a customer of San Francisco's Regional Water System. 

The situation is unfair, untenable and illustrates the dysfunctional nature of water distribution in California.


The "Primary School", a project of Priscilla Chan, wife of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, was approved as it included investment in local groundwater. But a dozen other projects were denied.

East Palo Alto is one of 26 communities that purchase water from San Francisco's Regional Water System. Unlike some of San Francisco's other wholesale customers, East Palo Alto has no other significant supplies.

As the San Jose Mercury News explains, East Palo Alto is among the most frugal cities in the state when it comes to water use. In 2014-2015, residents used only 36 gallons per day in their homes - barely half the regional average. Some cities use six times as much.

We live in a world of limited water supply. In order to conserve water for dry years as well as limit diversions from the Tuolumne River for environmental reasons, San Francisco's Regional Water System has agreed to limit overall supply to an average of 265 million gallons per day (mgd) - 81 mgd within San Francisco and 184 mgd for its wholesale customers.

East Palo Alto's "allocation" is 1.96 mgd. They have asked for an increase of 1.5 mgd.

Based on recent water use, San Francisco's customers are not in danger of exceeding their overall cap of 184 mgd (see figure 1). None of the other customers, however, are eager to forgo any of their allocation in case they might want to use it for future development. 


The total amount of water purchased by San Francisco's wholesale customers has generally been well under the cap of 184 mgd.

Reasonable people agree that water use limits make sense in a semi-arid state like California. Our often rigid methods of divvying up supply, however, can be inefficient and inequitable. In this case, the inability to fairly distribute water is contributing to the Bay Area's housing crunch. So, this water system dysfunction helps make communities unaffordable for many current and prospective residents.

San Francisco and the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, which represents San Francisco's customers, are working cooperatively to find a solution. Both agencies are comprised of good, solution-oriented people - in spite of their collective reluctance to embrace the restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park.

Still, it is unacceptable that the situation has reached this point. There has to be a better way to fairly allocate water for development that is in the public interest (these projects in East Palo Alto appear to have broad support). There are a number of possible physical solutions, but most require improved cooperation between water agencies.

This East Palo Alto situation is untenable. It is a clear example of how our parochial, historically derived water distribution system has failed. It needs to be fixed, in the Bay Area and throughout California.    


P.S. The water system investments necessary make restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley possible are not be affected, at least directly, by internal disagreement among San Francisco's customers. Most of California's water problems, however, could be significantly reduced by better cooperation among the agencies which manage water.