In response to recent community complaints regarding the treatment of groundwater pumped beneath Palo Alto homes, the City Council’s Policy and Services Committee endorsed a list of short-term reforms for dewatering and basement construction practices on Dec. 1.
According to the Policies and Services Committee Staff Report, such changes outlined require contractors to “mitigate the impacts of dewatering; explore new fees to capture the value of discharged water; find new uses for the water being pumped out; and pursue a long-term study focusing on best practices for groundwater.”
Dewatering has been a problem in recent years due to the increasing number of families looking to rebuild their homes. Since the city does not account for basements in calculating the weight of a home, building underground has been a common way to increase the property value of a home.
Palo Alto has approved 14 dewatering projects in 2015, according to the annual Public Works Department report. This shows a sharp increase in the past decade in which the city averaged 5 to 10 permits a year, according to another report released in 2008.
Currently, water that is displaced from homes that are built near shallow groundwater (typically located near the San Francisco Bay), is being flushed into storm drains to waste. According to the City’s consulting engineers, every basement construction results in a loss of around 8 to 10 million gallons of water.
The main concern of citizens in Palo Alto is that the policy sends the wrong message about the value of water, especially in the midst of the 5-year drought California is currently experiencing. Most of these concerned people are part of a new group called “Save Palo Alto’s Groundwater” and requested for more studies about the impact of basement construction on Palo Alto’s water supply, neighboring homes and trees.
In November, the group submitted a petition with around 200 signatures calling for the city to ban the pumping of groundwater until more laws are set to preserve the resource. The petition states that “water is too precious a resource to be wasted, and current city policies regarding dewatering do not take into account the possible need of this water to
mitigate future droughts nor its beneficial effects of supporting our canopy, our properties and our infrastructure.”
The petition created by the group states that “water is too precious a resource to be wasted, and current city policies regarding dewatering do not take into account the possible need of this water to mitigate future droughts nor its beneficial effects of supporting our canopy, our properties and our infrastructure.”
Keith Bennett created the conservation group to fight for recognition that water should not be treated as a useless byproduct of construction.
“Whether potable or not potable, this water is clearly usable for irrigation,” Bennett said in an interview with the Palo Alto Daily News. “It should be managed as a valuable resource.”
This issue first caught Bennett’s attention in 2011 when a nearby home began its dewatering operation. After about three weeks, Bennett noticed that he was having trouble opening his front door. Once the dewatering stopped, the door began to open normally again. Upon discussing with his neighbors, Bennett realized that some were having issues as well, including one family reporting that there were cracks in 2008 when another dewatering operation was taking place.
At a discussion with about 50 residents concerned about this issue, Skip Shapiro, another member of Save Palo Alto’s Groundwater, provided the solution to prohibit basement construction when groundwater must be pumped.
“If [someone is] building basements in residential areas where dewatering is required, perhaps that’s not an appropriate place to add basements,” Shapiro said in an interview with the Palo Alto Daily News.
Currently, the group is continuing to attract more supporters to sign its petition until the city has enforced policies to “require construction practices and/or zoning policies that preserve groundwater as a drought and emergency water supply resource . . . and mitigate the impacts and costs of basements on the City’s storm water handling and aquifer recharge capabilities.”