Op-Ed: A Dry Holiday in East Palo Alto

Opinion by and
Dec. 1, 2010, 12:07 a.m.

Drought. Rapidly increasing consumption. Ever-more complex utilities systems. Water use is one of the most pressing issues facing the Bay Area today. Our neighbors across Highway 101 in East Palo Alto are increasingly strained by water allocation problems. As members of Students for a Sustainable Stanford, we are concerned about current inequities in East Palo Alto’s water supply. On Dec. 14, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) will determine the allocation of the Bay Area’s water supply for the next eight years. Low-income communities such as East Palo Alto will likely lose out.

Historically, the burdens of water scarcity have fallen disproportionately on low-income and under-served communities. The SFPUC periodically sets regional water allocation quotas, which in the past have given these communities less than their projected needs in order to compensate for increased consumption across the region.

Water may be among the most threatened resources in California, but scarcity does not justify neglecting communities like East Palo Alto. As the December deadline looms, concerned citizens must urge the SFPUC to set a precedent for a more equitable allocation of water in the Bay Area in order to reverse past environmental injustices.

As things stand, the planned distributions are in urgent need of revision.

On Sept. 30, the SFPUC released draft guidelines detailing its water allocation targets. According to the draft, the water quotas the commission allocates may be far below projected need in several low-income communities. To use water beyond their assigned quotas, communities would have to pay steep fees. Under this plan, Palo Alto expects to receive 110 percent of its expected need, while East Palo Alto expects to be allocated only 58 percent. If this draft goes into effect, East Palo Alto would spend the next eight years limited by a water allocation far below what it requires.

East Palo Alto is already under heavy economic and environmental pressures. The median household income hovers at around $45,006 annually, slightly more than half of San Mateo County’s median, $84,879. The city has also endured many environmental injustices in its past. The county dump once resided here, as have auto dismantling facilities, several large factories and a hazardous-waste recycling plant—all producing pollution, pesticides, herbicides and overall dangerous living conditions.

Nevertheless, East Palo Alto has the lowest per-capita water usage in the entire Bay Area and is a model for water conservation strategies in low-income communities. Many contaminated sites have been cleaned up, the hazardous waste plant has been dismantled and a string of open spaces and park facilities have appeared in recent years. The community deserves to be rewarded for its conservation efforts, not punished by high water costs.

We in the environmental justice subgroup of Students for a Sustainable Stanford are advocating for fairer water allocation quotas in the Bay Area. The current proposal places an unfair financial burden on East Palo Alto residents. In other communities, such as Palo Alto, it discourages water conservation through excessive allocations that grant more water than residents actually need.

Before the final decision on Dec. 14, Students for a Sustainable Stanford is leading an effort here on campus to publicize our position and to advocate for more equitable water distribution. By raising awareness of this issue, we also hope to promote conservation efforts in communities like ours that are living with an abundance of water.

To learn more about this issue, please visit our website. There you can also sign a petition addressed to the SFPUC showing your support for improving water allocation quotas in the Bay Area.

Environmental Justice Subgroup

Students for a Sustainable Stanford

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