The 2020 Great Race for Saving Water: A Trip Down the Memory Trail

Palo Alto Baylands – April 25, 2020

By Peter Drekmeier

Despite our disappointment the Great Race for Saving Water had to be cancelled this year due to the coronavirus, Amy, Aidan and I were not deterred. Donned in face masks, we set out early to walk the 5K Great Race course in the spirit of Earth Day. The Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve was closed to cars, but open to hikers, joggers and cyclists. We were optimistic we finally had a chance of placing in the Race.

As with past events, we started our adventure walking down the levee trail along San Francisquito Creek, reminding us of its rich history. The Muwekma Ohlone tribespeople were the first human inhabitants of the area, hunting, fishing and enjoying life in the watershed for thousands of years. In 1922, a Stanford student dug a human skull from the bank of San Francisquito, and carbon-dating proved it to be more than 4,000 years old. The skull belonged to the oldest known human to have lived on the San Francisco Peninsula – although it’s believed people have inhabited the region for much longer.

In 1769 – seven years before the Declaration of Independence – Gaspar de Portola and his expedition camped beneath the famed El Palo Alto redwood tree along San Francisquito Creek shortly after “discovering” San Francisco Bay. The stretch of creek between El Palo Alto and the Bay has become very familiar to me after 30 years or organizing clean-ups and habitat restoration projects. To this day, the Creek continues to provide important habitat for threatened steelhead trout, red-legged frogs, western pond turtles and myriad other species.

Interestingly, San Francisquito had once been considered a source of drinking water for the City of San Francisco. Searsville Dam was constructed by Spring Valley Water Company in the late 1800s, and was later purchased by Stanford. The water smelled bad due to a high concentration of organic material, so the water has only been used for campus irrigation.

 As we approached the confluence of San Francisquito Creek and the Bay, the trail turned sharply to the right with a southeast heading. It was along this stretch that we came across the “Unnamed Slough.” Here, an outfall releases about 20 million gallons per day (mgd) of treated wastewater from the Regional Water Quality Control Plant.

I recalled a conversation I had about a dozen years ago with a hero of mine, Phil Bobel, who operates the wastewater plant. He asked me to remind him how much additional water the SFPUC wanted to divert from the Tuolumne River at the time. It was 25 mgd. “That’s interesting,” he responded, “because we release about that much treated water into the Bay” (it was higher then due to less conservation).

Thanks to the leadership of Phil and others, last fall the Cities of Palo Alto and Mountain View entered into an agreement with Valley Water to build two new facilities at the wastewater plant, one to produce 9 mgd of advanced-purified water for human consumption, and the other to produce 2 mgd of desalted recycled water for irrigation. The 2 mgd project will take a little pressure off the Tuolumne, because that water will be used in the SFPUC service area. The 9 mgd project will serve Valley Water customers, so it might take some pressure off the Delta, unless it’s just used to offset population growth.

We saw all sorts of wildlife during our stroll, including wild hares, Canada geese and too many ducks and other water fowl to name (not that I’m an accomplished birder). A mocking bird reminded me that I’m not very good at bird calls either. We had no problem identifying the swallows that utilize the dedicated nesting boxes under the eaves of the Nature Center.

As we approached the Lucy Evans Nature Center (named after “Baylands Lucy” – a pioneer in the fight to protect the Baylands from development), I was reminded of the time I caught my first gopher snake right there along the levee (I loved snakes when I was a kid, and still do). I took it home, built a cage, added soil, plants, a small log and a tray of water, and then headed to the pet store to buy a feeder mouse. The gopher snake, which I had yet to name, took refuge under the log, but the mouse was very active, tunneling around and keeping busy. I decided to return the snake to the Baylands, and keep the rodent. My dad named him Marcel Mouse (after the famous French mime), and that launched my small mammal phase of pet husbandry. 

When I was a kid, my family spent a lot of time at the Baylands. We loved the Nature Center with its catwalk traversing the pickleweed (habitat for the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse) to the bay shore. We also enjoyed feeding the ducks at what had once been a salt water swimming pool, but had been converted into a bird refuge. Palo Alto also had a yacht harbor, but it was closed in the 1980s after a passionate battle between boaters and conservationists.

Historically, San Francisquito Creek flowed out through the yacht harbor, naturally moving sediment out to the Bay. But around the 1930s, the Creek was relocated to its current location to the north to make land available for an airport and golf course. Without the Creek’s inflow, the harbor began to silt up, and the public no longer wanted to fund the dredging necessary to keep it viable. Plus, the dredged mud had been piling up on marshland, which was not popular with the electorate.

As we passed the old yacht harbor site, I recalled the time my old group, Bay Area Action, had organized a habitat restoration project in the area for Earth Day 1996. That day I was looking out over the old harbor site and saw two large animals swimming in a circle. At first I thought they were seals, but on closer inspection they turned out to be salmon. They were likely hatchery fish that had strayed into the small estuary looking for a creek to spawn in.

Across from where the yacht harbor had been is a pleasant little picnic area shaded by trees that until recently had served as a rookery for black-crowned night herons. I checked to see if the birds had returned, but without luck. We did notice a large number of rabbit droppings on the road, suggesting wildlife was enjoying the absence of cars, as were we. Perhaps the night herons will return to a more peaceful refuge.

We then passed the old Sea Scout building where I had spent a lot of time in my high school years. Our troop was known as Ship Intrepid, but the Intrepid – a 120-foot long former navy vessel – had since been retired and replaced by The Boxer – a 65-foot former mine sweep. We spent many days out on the Bay, and it was through Sea Scouts I first discovered the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta during our annual week-long Summer Cruise.

After the yacht harbor closed, the Sea Scout building – designed to look like a ship – fell into disrepair, and was close to being condemned. Environmental Volunteers – a wonderful environment education organization – stepped up and raised an impressive amount of funding to give the historic building new life, converting it into their EcoCenter.

As we entered the final leg of our trek, we passed the wastewater treatment plant, an underappreciated community asset. It reminded me of a 2008 campaign in San Francisco to rename the Oceanside Wastewater Treatment Plant the “George W. Bush Sewage Plant,” as a lasting insult to the departing President. Activists qualified an initiative for the ballot, but after receiving an education on the critical role such facilities serve for the health and welfare of our communities and the environment, the electorate voted the measure down. They didn’t want to bestow such an honor on Mr. Bush.

In 2011, 65% of the Palo Alto electorate voted to make 10 acres of the former landfill adjacent to the wastewater plant available for a facility to convert sewage sludge, and possibly food waste, into biogas and compost. The proposal was controversial because it pitted park advocates who wanted the entire landfill site to be converted to parkland against sustainability advocates who wanted to convert organic waste into environmentally-beneficial resources. Palo Alto has yet to determine whether to move forward with a waste conversion facility, but as a result of the awareness raised by the citizens’ initiative, last year the City retired its sewage sludge incinerator – the largest contributor of local greenhouse gas emissions.

As we approached the finish line, we reflected on how fortunate we were to live in such an environmentally-aware community. What a great way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day! And to cap it all off, guess who won the 2020 Great Race for Saving Water?

Special thanks to Catherine Elvert from the Palo Alto Utilities Department for spearheading the Great Race for Saving Water and Earth Day celebration since 2013.