Monday, December 5, 2011

The Water District reducing GHG emissions and California cap-and-trade

Today's Water District meeting featured an energy usage work study session.  We use a lot of energy moving water across much of the state and then treating it, about 5% of all our costs.  While we also have a policy saying we that want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, our policy isn't very clear.  I pressed staff on this issue and another director, Linda Lezotte, also followed up:

(Arrgh, something won't let me post more than one video excerpt.  It's here at the 01:28:00 mark, for about 4 minutes.  Two of us seven directors say we need to do more than merely "cost-effective" efforts to reduce GHG emissions, the other five don't say anything.)

We're pretty good overall in our energy usage.  Maybe we can partner with Sonoma County to be better.
We're part of a joint powers authority for buying our power at a rate that's both cheaper and with lower carbon emissions than our local utility provides.  Our CO2 emissions are 435lbs/MWh, one-third the national average (see the first link, Attachment 4, p 17). Not the one-tenth that we need, but pretty good.

While California cap-and-trade doesn't apply directly to us, it does apply to the joint powers authority called PWRPA that we helped establish to get our power, and we may have a chance to sell carbon allowances from environmental improvements that we make:

In addition to what you can see on the video is the 3 hours that we spent in closed (confidential) session to discuss internally the negotiations with labor unions for new contracts.  Obviously I can't talk about what happened then, but the financial issues highlight how important the economics of all this is. If doing the right thing environmentally can help us out financially, we're going to do more of the right thing, especially right now when finances are so tight.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

To fluoridate, someday

Previous post dilemmaized over whether and how to fluoridate at my next Water District Board meeting, which was yesterday. Here's the news:

Santa Clara Valley Water District OKs adding fluoride to its drinking water

Silicon Valley's largest drinking water provider took the first steps Tuesday toward adding fluoride to the drinking water in most of Santa Clara County, including San Jose, the largest city in the nation without the cavity-battling additive.
After a lively 90-minute debate at a packed meeting, the board of the Santa Clara Valley Water District voted 7-0 to put the district on record supporting fluoridation.

It could've been 6-1 because of a side issue where I disagreed with my colleagues about creating yet another Board committee to oversee this, but they were willing to split up the vote so I could agree with them on the main issue and then get shot down over the new committee.

If you're so inclined, you can listen to a couple minutes of my comments while looking at uninteresting shot of the board room below (source link here):

I made clear that I wanted public education on infant formula and on reverse osmosis for those who don't want fluoride, and that we keep checking in on the scientific consensus. I think I'll win that fight. When we'll do this and who will pay for it is less clear. I think it's a legitimate expenditure of public funds, but we're not a public health agency. If they want Water District money to fix people's teeth, my vote would be that they have to wait a while. We need to fix our seismic risks at our dams, restore the environment, and reduce flood damages.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

To fluoridate or not to fluoridate, that is the question. Next Tuesday at my Water District Board meeting

I'll reproduce below most of an old post about fluoridation. I had previously expected to see an identical situation with climate change in terms of the debate, but it's not. I think factors overall favor fluoridating, but not quite as overwhelmingly as I expected. On Tuesday, my fellow Directors and I get to figure out next steps.

Fluoridation opponents have made lots of mistakes in my opinion, but supporters have overstated the consensus. In particular, fluoride levels four to eight times the recommended level do have rare adverse effects, which isn't a huge safety margin in toxicity issues (UPDATE: I mean rare and severe effects - some cosmetic problems to teeth are common). Very slight adverse effects on larger groups would also be hard to rule out.

The Center for Disease Control recommends mixing non-fluoridated water in formula for babies that use formula exclusively. I can also attest to hearing from the significant number of people, if still a minority, who are just anguished that we're putting something they consider toxic in their water. Home-based reverse osmosis systems can remove their fluoride, I think.

And then there's the money cost - over $4m to construct and $800k to operate. We might get funding to construct but get stuck with operating, which people forget is the bigger cost.

So. The staff recommendation is to proceed if someone else pays for it. We'll see. If we do go forward, we may need to educate people about infant formula and let people know they can get reverse osmosis kits if they want.

Anyway, here's most of the old post, with the science:

Fluoridating water, or a funny thing happened on my way to backseat driving

I originally labelled this blog Backseat Driving back in 2004 because I anticipated it to be a blog where I would second-guess decisions made by politicians and other people. That worked out fine more or less until November 2010, when for some reason I was elected to the Santa Clara Valley Water District Board. Turns out that San Jose is the largest city in the US without fluoridated water supplies (in much of the city, anyway), and the seven of us directors have to decide whether we'll help or hinder the fluoridation process. So I'm pushed into the front seat for this one.

We've got some legal and economic issues to handle (it's not quite as cheap as everyone says, I want to know where the money's going to come from), but the relevant issue here is science. I read the guest post at climate blogger Coby Beck's place, The Case Against Fluoride, fairly closely a while back, especially the raucous debate in the comments. As a spectator with some, limited reading of the available information, I'd say the fluoridators seemed more persuasive than skeptics, but it wasn't the absolute demolishing that I expected.

The fluoride skeptics really hurt their cause when say fluoride doesn't prevent cavities - it's so obviously effective that people making this claim are damaging their own credibility. I'd consider it comparable to denying that the planet has warmed in the last 50 years.

The closer issue is adverse effects, and whether a substantial number of people are very slightly harmed by fluoridation, or if a small number of people are substantially harmed. The 2006 National of Sciences report doesn't condemn fluoridation, but it doesn't absolve it, either:
Bone Fractures

....Overall, there was consensus among the committee that there is scientific evidence that under certain conditions fluoride can weaken bone and increase the risk of fractures. The majority of the committee concluded that lifetime exposure to fluoride at drinking-water concentrations of 4 mg/L or higher is likely to increase fracture rates in the population, compared with exposure to 1 mg/L, particularly in some demographic subgroups that are prone to accumulate fluoride into their bones (e.g., people with renal disease)....There were few studies to assess fracture risk in populations exposed to fluoride at 2 mg/L in drinking water. The best available study, from Finland, suggested an increased rate of hip fracture in populations exposed to fluoride at concentrations above 1.5 mg/L. However, this study alone is not sufficient to judge fracture risk for people exposed to fluoride at 2 mg/L. Thus, no conclusions could be drawn about fracture risk or safety at 2 mg/L....

(In California, 2 mg/L was the limit, and 0.7 is the new proposed goal. -Ed)
Neurotoxicity and Neurobehavioral Effects

Animal and human studies of fluoride have been published reporting adverse cognitive and behavioral effects. A few epidemiologic studies of Chinese populations have reported IQ deficits in children exposed to fluoride at 2.5 to 4 mg/L in drinking water. Although the studies lacked sufficient detail for the committee to fully assess their quality and relevance to U.S. populations, the consistency of the results appears significant enough to warrant additional research on the effects of fluoride on intelligence....

Endocrine Effects

The chief endocrine effects of fluoride exposures in experimental animals and in humans include decreased thyroid function, increased calcitonin activity, increased parathyroid hormone activity, secondary hyperparathyroidism, impaired glucose tolerance, and possible effects on timing of sexual maturity. Some of these effects are associated with fluoride intake that is achievable at fluoride concentrations in drinking water of 4 mg/L or less, especially for young children or for individuals with high water intake. Many of the effects could be considered subclinical effects, meaning that they are not adverse health effects. However, recent work on borderline hormonal imbalances and endocrine-disrupting chemicals indicated that adverse health effects, or increased risks for developing adverse effects, might be associated with seemingly mild imbalances or perturbations in hormone concentrations. Further research is needed to explore these possibilities....
(Removed discussion of bone cancer as not very troubling given its rarity. Ed.)

These were the most troubling findings, mostly about what hasn't been proven, and mostly dealing with levels that are five times what's planned for drinking water. The report expressly ignored the benefits of fluoridation. It's important to balance out potential concerns over rare, severe complications related to fluoride with the certainty that rare, severe complications can result from cavities.

The bottom line as a policy maker in my little arena is that I shouldn't try and figure out the science myself, but I should try to figure out what the scientific consensus is, figure out where the consensus doesn't yet exist, and then plug that information into everything else we have to balance.

The science seems to favor fluoridation, but it's not a slam dunk. And we still have potential policy barriers, and the overall cost issues. Figuring this all out will be interesting.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tidal wetland sediment accretion might keep up with sea level rise in one location. Maybe.

I attended our annual Santa Clara County Creeks Conference last Saturday, with an even better than usual program that included a panel on tidal wetlands restoration in South San Francisco Bay, where we're bringing back 16,000 acres of tidal wetlands from former saltponds (will post a video link when it's online).

The restoration has barely begun, but the land that sank after being separated from tidal flows has gained sediment rapidly, something that's necessary to create a complex environment of open water, partially submerged, and emergent tidal environments. While it's slowed more after the first few years that individual ponds have been opened to the the tides, they're still adding sediment, two inches annually, far more than the worst projections for sea level rise.

So, good for us. Except that California is a geologically young area with lots of gradients, erosion, and sediment flow. Our particular part of San Francisco Bay might also disproportionately benefit from the "backwash" of sediment from the rest of the Bay.

Our tidal wetlands can keep up where they are, for now, but whether that will work in other places is less clear.  Still, it's one small piece of good news that demonstrates the value of restoring tidal wetlands, which have been lost to a far greater extent in the US than even freshwater wetlands have.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Occupy Wall Street's relevance to the Water District

It took me a little while to put the two issues in the blog headline together. Santa Clara Valley Water District has several hundred million dollars in financial reserves. I wonder if there's anything financially responsible that the Water District can do with the voters' financial reserves, in light of the abuse of the financial system by Wall Street titans.

Just thinking, no answers yet....

UPDATE: KQED's California Report shows other people thinking about the same thing.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Working for the Water District in Washington DC

I spent this week as one of two elected directors visiting Washington DC (the other was Vice-Chair Lezotte) to talk about our local flood control and water supply projects, and to try and scare up some money for more. Some notes:

  • I can confirm the obvious statement that the budget process is broken. I respect the antipathy to earmarks and am open to replacing them with another process, but what we have instead is virtually no process to provide local input into federal decision-making about local projects. We had multiple meetings with Congressional offices where they often said they could do little to help, and just one with the Office of Management and Budget, which now has all the power.
  • There is real interest in the Obama in the environment. We talked about environmental benefits to one relatively high-level official in the Department of Agriculture who'd been hired from an environmental organization. She raised Obama's Great Outdoors initiative that tries to reconnect Americans to our natural environment, including urban areas. So I pointed to a map that we brought. Here in south San Jose, wild elk will sometimes roam within city limits. In north San Jose where San Francisco Bay ends, leopard sharks swim. Connecting them is Coyote Creek, a major intact riparian system running through central San Jose with migrating, endangered steelhead, a bike/pedestrian pathway, great views of hawk nests. Our flood control project is a major tributary where we want to rip out concrete, replace it with vegetated-earth banks, and add riparian habitat next to an elementary school. She liked it.
  • We can at least take some actions to adapt to climate change. We're trying to restore 15,000 acres of abandoned salt-making ponds to tidal wetlands, but the pond levees form part of the antiquated levee system protecting urban land in the South Bay. We want to rebuild and strengthen the landward side of the multi-ring levee system, and only then can we breach the bayside of the salt pond levees and restore them to tidal flow and vegetation. This was our one meeting with OMB, and there I emphasized that we're sizing the levees to accommodate 50 years of sea level rise (based on Cal. Academy of Sciences 2006 report, using the high end of three scenarios), and sized so they can be built up higher if needed. The OMB people seemed interested, so we'll see.

I sure wish I knew politically-viable ways to make GHG emissions pay for our climate adaptation projects, either on a local, state, or national level, but it's not jumping out at me (don't forget that "politically-viable" requirement). Our riverine flood protection projects also have to be sized for sea level rise because they empty into the Bay, so the costs add up.

My one other observation is that a lot of people we met with sure are young. Our nation is in the hands of twenty-somethings, presumably because we can get away with paying them nothing and working them constantly. Let's hope it works out.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Mysterious flows of Permanente Creek

I've heard hard-to-understand stories about water flows in Permanente Creek starting and stopping for no apparent reason during our cloudless summers and fall months. I heard it again this weekend and decided to check it out, and to refamiliarize myself with potential flood protection changes.

I live near the lower creek between El Camino and 101. It always flows there, and today was no different.

Across and upstream of El Camino, Hale Creek joins Permanente (very near McKelvey Park, one of the planned detention basins). Hale Creek was flowing, Permanente wasn't, so Hale is where Lower Permanente gets its water.

I tracked Permanente up to Cuesta Drive, viewing it completely dry in several places. The creek came out from Miramonte where it's underground for a short distance, and there was a small trickle, so that trickle must seep in/dry out before getting far downstream. Further upstream at Covington, still dry.

Back on Miramonte upstream of Eastwood, you can see (if you climb a tree) the cement channel where the diversion to Stevens Creek splits off. This channel had muck in it, but was basically dry. Still dry at Heritage Oaks Park.

I finally got to where the creek crosses underneath Fremont, and there was flowing water again, although not very much. I didn't go further from there, but yesterday I saw a lot of water flowing at Rancho San Antonio Park. I think we can assume that flows gradually peter out from Rancho going downstream to the Fremont bridge.

So nothing too strange today, but no explanation as to why water would just start flowing in the middle of summer as people have observed.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

District Board approves reforms increasing the involvement and flexibility of advisory committees

Just a quick note to say I'm very glad the District Board unanimously approved the recommendations of the Ad Hoc Committee that I chaired, recommendations intended to significantly increase the flexibility and involvement of advisory committees. This was one of my key campaign promises.

The decision occurred at the July 19 meeting, which you can watch here, as Item 9.2.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Six months at the Water District: a status report

I've now finished one-eighth of my term in office. At my web page you can see the issues that I've run on, and I thought I would report on them and other issues at the District.

Mercury: the District continues to work on existing mercury problems, with funding moving ahead. The idea I have for state legislation on Extended Producer Responsibility on mercury hasn't gone beyond discussion stage. So far. I figure it will take a while, and I'm still working on it.

The District as an environmental champion: on the two big issues of continued work on environmental enhancements and on watchdog work to protect streams, both are moving forward. The District continues to work on its Three Creeks Habitat Conservation Plan (although I am worried about how much the planning is costing), as is the multi-agency County Habitat Plan. There hasn't been new money spent on Clean Safe Creeks environmental enhancement, although existing projects have continued to operate, such as the opening of a major tidal pond off of Alviso.

The other major environmental development is a budget of a half-time employee to make sure development is not violating guidelines for land use near streams.

Greater public transparency and control: I think this is the area where we've made the most progress. The Board established an Ad-hoc committee to improve our work with advisory committees. I was appointed to the committee and made its chair. We've completed our work in just a few meetings to propose significant improvements in increasing advisory committee involvement with the District Board, ability to channel recommendations, and flexibility with agenda.

We've had some progress on involvement with other groups, like the new Friends of Adobe Creek group and helpful work by the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce on emergency access to Alviso. I would like to see more progress here.

We've held a number of evening meetings and will hold at least one a month, starting in July. It's an experiment, and if it works then we can expand it. Obviously, I continue to stand by my promise of no more than two terms in office. I and the other Directors made clear that the Redistricting Committee isn't limited on what district boundaries it can choose, although it would be inappropriate for us to bias their selection. I continue to be interested in changing the Board's structure to be more like a City Council, and as part of that, the Board will consider my suggestion of reversing the pay raise it gave itself, to be considered this August.

So overall, I think there's been significant progress. I wish it could be faster, and I'll keep working on it, but still I believe it's going well.


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On avoiding conflicts of interest at the Water District

I've made clear during and after the campaign that I intended to avoid conflicts of interest between my day job as an environmental advocate for Committee for Green Foothills and my service on the Water District Board. Today the Mercury News wrote about the issue:

In March, members of the water district board were discussing at a public meeting whether to shift money for environmental restoration of streams to flood control work. Schmidt openly asked if he might have a conflict.

He asked water district counsel Stan Yamamoto for a ruling. He met afterward with Yamamoto's staff. The lawyers issued a memo spelling out when Schmidt should recuse himself from voting.

"Before I even started the campaign last year, I said I wanted to avoid any conflicts between my job as an environmental advocate and the work the water district does," Schmidt said Monday.

Yamamoto declined to be interviewed.

Asked to make the memo public, Schmidt said he could not, because he isn't the client in the attorney-client relationship, the water district is. Instead, he said, he has asked the state Fair Political Practices Commission for a ruling. He declined to comment on whether he supports making the memo public.

That's the core information in the article, although I think there was some sensationalizing of it. My main complaint is that I gave the reporter a reason why I shouldn't publicly declare whether the memo should be public, which wasn't included in the article: because the memo's about me, I shouldn't be involved in the process of deciding whether it should be released, and that includes publicly lobbying the Water District to release it (or not).

Second complaint is that no one ever releases attorney-client communication (for the reason that it would impair frank communication), and the article declined to mention that. I told the reporter that I considered that an essential part of the information that the public doesn't know, but he didn't. I should note that the Water District hasn't (so far anyway) decided to release the memo, but it's up to them. I did make clear to the reporter that as a general matter I oppose releasing attorney-client communication, but there could be specific exceptions, and I wouldn't weigh in on whether this memo was one of them.

It's somewhat ironic that we were in disagreement over what the newspaper is withholding from the public.

One additional thing the article brings that I do think is fair is that to the extent I have a conflict that keeps me from voting, I can't weigh in on issues on behalf of my constituents. On the other hand, it's the same experience at my day job that gives me relevant knowledge for the job. Overall, I think I'll need to recuse myself between one and three times this year, and fewer times in subsequent years. I noted this during the campaign as well and felt that it wasn't so broad a problem as to keep me from doing the work, and nothing's changed my mind since then.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Drought conservation response

At our last Water District Board meeting on April 26th, we had an interesting discussion on the District's call from last year for a voluntary 10% water conservation effort as a "drought conservation response". That request for a drought response is still in effect, despite the fact that everyone acknowledges that the drought is over. District staff brought the matter to the Board, with the recommendation that the drought conservation resolution, set to expire at the end of June, be allowed to expire without renewal.

The Board had three responses. I said that the District should encourage conservation for general reasons but should also signal when special efforts are needed during droughts. That meant signalling when the drought ended, and since it's already ended, we should repeal the drought resolution as soon as practicable.

Director Lezotte said we shouldn't let the conservation resolution expire, at all. Her approach is that our conservation needs are so great that the conservation effort should basically be always increasing, instead of relaxing. I can see her point, and I agree with her to the extent we're discussing efforts unrelated to droughts, but as to droughts, I think we should clearly signal when a need for special conservation begins, and to maintain credibility then we should clearly signal when that need ends.

The remaining Board members didn't agree with either of us, and simply voted to let the drought resolution expire. I joined their position when mine failed to get support, but I don't see why it's preferable to wait an extra two months after a drought has expired to officially take note of the expiration.

I do hope though that when it expires, we have a replacement resolution that emphasizes the need for non-drought related conservation.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Evening meeting democracy!

So we had a our first evening meeting since I've been sworn in, and you can watch it here. I was very happy that it happened, as that's one of my campaign promises - hold the meetings when people can actually attend. Starting this summer, we'll do at least one a month. I'd prefer to do it all the time, but we're trying this for now.

The meeting had a lot of people there, so that was a great start. They were there primarily to discuss fluoridation (more on that later).

Another campaign promise has been to reverse the pay raise that the Board gave itself. It's been a frustratingly long process, but I will get the chance to do just that in August, assuming I can get the others to come along.

So, slower than I expected, but it's progress.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Capital costs, desalination, understanding hydrology

Might not sound like interesting stuff, but the above is what I found interesting from today's February 15 meeting. Planned sales of recycled water will not recover the capital costs of building the water treatment facility. This might not be totally unusual in the world of water, but I think it makes it difficult to compare costs of various options - should we invest in recycled water versus invest in conservation, say - if we don't account for all costs. Also, I understand that water retailers want to tap into and sell recycled water. I'd be concerned if, among other things, they got the water at prices that didn't cover capital costs. We'll find out.

Desalination has been treated as a subset of recycled water. It does use similar technology, but everything else about it is different (and worse). I'd like to see it separated out from recycling. There's the interesting issue of whether cancellation of it might damager relations with partner agencies, but I also wonder if there are people in those partner agencies that have the same concern that I'm expressing.

There are apparently some water rights issues related to water recycling. Not sure I understand that yet.

Finally, I would like to better understand how flood analysis is done. I think that might help understand natural flood control and how climate change effects on snow line might affect flooding. I'd also be interested in seeing predictive uses of flooding models.


Thursday, February 3, 2011


I was chagrined to learn recently that we may, emphasis may, have a problem with chromium-6 in the Water District.

The Environmental Working Group came out with a report in December that found hexvalent chromium (chromium-6) in many US cities, including San Jose. We had a Water District Board meeting the next day that said the District hadn't found any in its tests from our water treatment plants. However, the District went back through its records and informed us that it had subsequently found testing records for groundwater. The treatment plants only get surface water, but groundwater could be contaminated from natural sources, and that appears to be the case here. Making things worse, the state has significantly reduced the proposed safety level to one that's extremely low, 0.02 parts per billion, something that most labs can't even test.

The good news, such as it is, is that the proposed levels are only proposed, there is no existing level, the District is not in violation of any regulation, and the levels that are ultimately considered appropriate may not turn out to be as strict as first thought.

On the other hand, the levels found in groundwater were a median of 1 part per billion, with a high of 23 parts per billion. Obviously, that's a far cry from .02 ppb. We don't know where the official level will ultimately end up, but we may have a problem.

Anyway, we talked about it at the February 1 meeting, Item 5 (although not until near the end of that item, close to the end of the day).

Unrelated item from that same meeting was Item 4, water treatment. It occurred to me when I looked at the map that our west side treated water system could be connected fairly easily to the Hetch Hetchy water system in Mountain View, and since Hetch Hetchy is connected to our east side treatment system in Milpitas, we'd have a (somewhat) interconnected treated water system. Might be something worth investigating.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

New chair and vice chair, and thoughts about the Gold Street project

Yesterday we elected Don Gage as Chair and Linda Lezotte as Vice Chair, and I'm looking forward to their leadership. I also look forward to Patrick Kwok taking a leadership role in 2012 as Vice Chair and 2013 as Chair.

Three of the seven directors thought that given Director Kwok's long experience, he should be Vice Chair this year instead of 2011. I think that's a very reasonable argument, but given that the continuation of the existing rotation system that will start again in 2012 means that Director Lezotte will be Chair, it makes more sense that she be Vice Chair this year.

I very much appreciate a memo and statement by Director Kwok that in effect says there was no racial issue involved in whether he or Director Lezotte should be Vice Chair this year. I agree with him. Similarly, I wrote a Letter to the Editor to the Mercury News that said honest disagreements like these don't split us into camps of reformers and non-reformers, and I will work to avoid any split.

Finally, we reconsidered the Gold Street Educational Center in Alviso, and on a 3-3 vote, considered moving the project to the County Marina but did not do so (a tie vote means the motion fails and the originally-approved project moves forward). I was one of the three voting to move the project - I thought the cost savings that strongly favor the County Marina location outweighed the other factors that favor the Gold Street location, but I think the contrary view is reasonable. This issue has now been dealt with by multiple Boards of Directors, and I think it's finished.