Editorial: Make conservation part of any water dealThe plan recently unveiled by the city of Menlo Park to drill into the aquifer at Nealon Park and pipe the water to the Sharon Heights Golf and Country Club apparently will save money for the city and the country club, but it remains to be seen if the deal would run afoul of numerous regulations that govern such taking of water.
Nealon Park neighbors object to the potential noise generated by drilling the well, which would last about a month. Other concerns include the city's prior commitments for water and whether the California Environmental Quality Act would come into play.
The city did not cover CEQA in its first discussion of drilling the Nealon Park well. If the City Council ultimately approves the plan, it could produce significant savings for the country club, which presumably is paying market rate now for 60 million gallons of Hetch Hetchy water a year from the city's water district. And the city would benefit, too, by being able to substantially reduce its purchase of Hetch Hetchy water, and continue to meet the country club's high demand for irrigation water.
Since the proposal is in the preliminary stages, no financial details have been made public. The city says the country club will pay for all costs associated with design and construction of piping infrastructure. If the project moves forward, the city would negotiate a price for the well water with the country club. A preliminary feasibility study found that there "appears to be significant potential savings to both the city and the country club under several scenarios."
Nealon Park neighbors, however, see very little upside in placing the well near their homes, raising concerns of ground subsidence in addition to construction impact and noise. And there is the obvious question: Why drill a well on city property to serve a private country club several miles away?
Acting Public Works Director Chip Taylor has explained that due to the bedrock layers under its property, the country club cannot drill for water on its own. And he added that city studies show withdrawing 60 million gallons of water a year would remove only a tiny percentage of the aquifer, which is constantly refreshed, contrary to some thinking that it is a finite pool of water that could be tapped out by a large well.
The city says the Nealon Park site was selected because it could produce a flow of 500 gallons per minute, or 720,000 gallons a day, more than adequate to serve the country club and the three parks (Nealon, Jack Lyle and Sharon, and La Entrada Middle School), which are located along the proposed pipeline route to Sharon Heights.
By using its own well, the city could significantly reduce its purchase of Hetch Hetchy water, which it buys now to serve the country club and its own parks. The city's water business serves 14,000 residents who live east of El Camino Real and in Sharon Heights. Other parts of the city are customers of California Water Service Company.
Water from the proposed "groundwater irrigation well" would not be treated, so it could only be used for irrigation. The city would continue to deliver potable Hetch Hetchy water to the club for drinking and other inside uses.
From the city's perspective, the Nealon Park well would reduce its consumption of Hetch Hetchy water by 60 million gallons per year, a substantial savings. The city adds that by reducing its water purchase, it would help the water district stay within its supply assurance from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which operates the Hetch Hetchy system.
At least at first glance, it appears that the city could reduce its purchase of increasingly expensive Hetch Hetchy water and continue to deliver irrigation water to the Sharon Heights club, one of its biggest customers. We remain concerned, however, about the lack of attention paid to potential conservation in the city's studies so far. Any agreement with the country club should set an upper limit for water deliveries and contain incentives for conservation.
Whether it comes from the Hetch Hetchy system or a well at Nealon Park, water is not an unlimited resource. Nowhere in the city's preliminary analysis is there any mention of how the Nealon Park well would impact the long-term health of the aquifer. And even if the aquifer can sustain long-term withdrawals, we doubt if Menlo Park residents would want to see this water pumped out to simply save the city money, but mostly for the benefit of a private club.
In addition, in light of our recent droughts, it is hardly prudent to believe that Hetch Hetchy will run strong forever. There are going to be some bad years and Menlo Park's allocation could be cut. If we begin pumping out our aquifer now, it might not be there if our primary source runs dry some day.