Community Stakeholders Design A Landscape For Palo Alto's Clean-Water Plant

Palo Alto’s clean-water plant is surrounded by a landscape of trees, shrubs and plants selected by a committee with advice from community stakeholders.
Community Stakeholders Design A Landscape For Palo Alto's Clean-Water Plant
Besides landscape plantings, the Palo Alto plant includes ornamental signage and structures and a mural painted on the recycled water tank.

Despite being 2 miles from the city and beyond the view of its 225,000 residents, the 20 mgd (average) Palo Alto Regional Water Quality Control Plant has extensive landscaping around its 25-acre property.

Plantings screen the facility from its neighbors, including a nearby airport and thousands of visitors to the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve. “It was the primary goal of the landscaping project committee,” says Julie Weiss, environmental specialist, who led the plant’s involvement in a three-year landscape renovation of the facility, 35 miles south of San Francisco.

The work was also a requirement of the Baylands Master Plan, a long-range city plan for preserving the Palo Alto Baylands. Nearly 50 species of plants, trees and shrubs, selected by an eight-member committee, adorn the facility’s fence line and the plant interior, which includes a drop-off area for household hazardous waste. Siegfried Engineering designed the landscape and contractor QLM did the installation.

Advice from the community

Because limited information was available about various species’ suitability for the site’s soils, the committee received advice from the Audubon Society, the city arborist, the city Open Space, Parks and Golf Department, nonprofit organizations with expertise in native plants and urban forestry, and local residents.

To keep the trees and shrubs thriving, reclaimed water is distributed through more than 2 miles of 2-inch pipe to provide drip irrigation. Grasses and large areas of groundcover are sprayed. A maintenance plan guides workers on what to do if certain plant selections fail.

“There is a lot more to the project than just adding new plants and trees,” Weiss says. A half-mile-long, 5-foot-wide asphalt path meanders through the project site and a wooden interpretive sign illustrates the treatment facility’s processes. Mounted on recycled utility poles and anchored in a cement base, the vandal-proof sign describes how the facility helps protect the Baylands from pollution.

Six rest areas with benches provide areas for tour groups to gather and for staff to enjoy during meetings or at lunchtime. Two areas totaling 1,380 square feet are set aside for employees to plant vegetable and fruit gardens. They are irrigated with potable water.

Decorative artworks

“The exterior pathway is really about safety, too,” says Weiss. “Since we are far from town and can’t go to a restaurant for lunch, it gives everyone a place to relax. The paths also provide a safe passageway for walkers and bikers who in the past had to use the roadway.”

Public art is part of the project. A sculpture by artist Martin Webb stands at the entrance. Made from reclaimed wooden highway guardrails, it bears a design entitled “Riding the Currents,” created by carving, painting and fastening stainless steel details. The square-sided guardrails, in a group of eight, are mounted vertically on a 3- by 8-foot concrete base.

Webb also painted a 20- by 30-foot mural with the same title and theme on the recycled water tank. Webb’s works were inspired by the Baylands environment, one the largest tracts of undisturbed marshlands in the San Francisco Bay Area. The art was funded under a city policy to designate 1 percent of the value of each public project to public art.

Big improvement

Before the landscape renovation, some mature trees and plants screened the facility, but expansion and improvement projects over the last 40 years caused it to deteriorate, and much of it had died or was in poor health. Many areas had become overgrown, and the irrigation system was no longer functional.

“We met our goal of screening the plant and vastly improving aesthetics, while also demonstrating how recycled water is beneficial and is becoming essential in commercial landscape, given our changing climate and pressures on potable water use,” says Weiss.

James Allen, plant manager, agrees. Even though operators were not active in the project, they provided input to the design, helping to ensure that it had a beneficial impact on the Baylands. “We tried to improve the experience and safety for our visitors,” says Allen. “We just really wanted to be a good neighbor.”   


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