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S.F.'s tasty tap water about to get a little murkier 

Wednesday, May 20 2009
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We San Franciscans like to fancy ourselves unique, but most such claims don't hold water. We had 1960s counterculture movements, yes, but the thick of that action was at faraway events such as the Chicago Seven trial and the Stonewall riots. San Francisco is an unusually beautiful city, sure, but no more so than Truckee, Santa Cruz, or New York. One thing we have had that no other similarly sized city did was unusually pure water. Melted snow and glacial streams feed the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and the water then piped across the Central Valley and into city faucets and showerheads is so clean and delicious that it's also sold in bottles.

But that distinction could soon end thanks to a watershed agreement recently approved between San Francisco and the more than two dozen rural and suburban cities, water districts, and utilities that draw water from the Hetch Hetchy system.

The new 25-year deal closes an epoch of seemingly limitless, perfectly pure water for San Franciscans. Thanks to regional growth and environmental concerns about the ecology of the Tuolumne River, the agreement will force San Franciscans, who consume mere drops of water per capita compared to people in other cities, to make do with even less. The new era of scarcity also means San Francisco will have to increase the amount of water the city obtains from local wells, which can contain trace contaminants such as manganese and iron, albeit at levels so low they don't threaten health.

"San Franciscans think we're members of the Sierra Club, and take this great water, flush it once, and send it out into the bay," says Ed Harrington, general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. "Most people in the world don't get to do that. Now, we're talking about, one, reuse of water. And, two, bringing some of that water out of the ground."

Some local residents fear Harrington's negotiating team has sold the city down the river by guaranteeing an average of 92 gallons per day to individual water users outside the city, while setting a goal of merely 54 gallons per day for San Franciscans (down from the current 57 gallons).

"We're not going to have enough water," says Joan Girardot, former president of the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, who heads the group's water task force. "This is going to be a huge issue a few years down the road."

Harrington denies San Francisco has negotiated itself into water shortages. And other experts I spoke to say the complex agreements by which San Francisco obtains water leave plenty of wiggle room to obtain more if need be.

Nonetheless, the massive new water agreement is significant because it may mark the first time in recent history that famously green-minded San Francisco has to actually concern itself directly with limits imposed by Mother Earth. Unlike other cities, San Franciscans haven't worried about smog because ocean breezes blow our air pollution to the Central Valley. And while cities such as Modesto hire water cops to cite profligate lawn irrigators, San Francisco has used some of the purest water in the world to irrigate golf courses, while residents rarely give water use a second thought.

There's nothing like personal pain to spur action. In that spirit, perhaps a new age of limits, prescribed by the city's new water agreement, could be a good thing.

Most San Franciscans know the rough history of this city's unusually luxurious water system, whereby city fathers, while rebuilding after the 1906 earthquake and fire, secured a reliable source of water by obtaining rights to dam the Tuolumne River at Hetch Hetchy Valley. After battling environmentalists and farmers for a few years, and then performing magical feats of engineering for a few more, in 1923 the city finished the O'Shaughnessy Dam, so that water could descend 160 miles to San Francisco.

But while the dam is anchored in the granite walls of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, the scheme under which the city has shared the water with towns such as Hayward, Brisbane, and Los Altos Hills has always been on soft legal ground. The 1913 act of Congress giving San Francisco the right to dam the Tuolumne River named the city the primary beneficiary of the project; but it also allowed city officials to identify "other municipalities or water district(s)" to include in the system. Given that the reservoir contained vastly more water than San Francisco needed at the time, the city has, from early on, sold water to other districts.

In the 1970s, when San Francisco sought to raise rates on upstream users while keeping water rates low in the city, the suburban users sued. To settle the lawsuit, the suburban customers and San Francisco struck a 25-year agreement in 1984 — set to expire in June — guaranteeing a maximum 184 million gallons per day, at cost, to the suburban customers, compared to 81 million gallons per day for San Francisco. The perpetual guarantee to the suburbs read as a one-sentence afterthought in the 65-page settlement agreement that focused largely on cost allocation. That's because the South and East Bay populations were smaller in those days, and didn't use nearly as much water as they do now. What's more, the tunnels and reservoirs in the Hetch Hetchy system were built to handle as much as 300 million gallons per day, leaving plenty of water for San Francisco even if the city were to grow larger. But the suburbs have grown at a faster clip than the city. And concerns about precarious fish species preclude sucking that much water out of the Tuolumne.

Indeed, fears about possible environmental lawsuits last fall drove the city to cut a deal with environmental groups. Under the agreement, San Francisco would limit the total draw on the system to an average of 265 million gallons per day, and pay a steep fine for excess usage.

Environmental documents completed last fall specify that San Francisco's customers would draw no more than the maximum 81 million gallons per day provided in the 1984 agreement, with everybody's quota cut in the event of a drought. Suburban customers such as Hayward had hoped to increase their draw on the Tuolumne. Instead, Hayward and others will also be compelled to curb their usage under the new deal.

To make do under the new regime, they'll have to double their levels of conservation, says Art Jensen, general manager of the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, the suburban users' bargaining group. "San Francisco imposed a limitation on us that we didn't ask for," he says.

San Franciscans will likewise be asked to conserve. A 2004 PUC study predicted that by 2010, demand for water in San Francisco will be at 92.4 million gallons per day. In order for the San Francisco system to get by on a mere 81 million gallons per day, more well water will be drawn from an aquifer now used by Daly City and other communities just south of the city. Golden Gate Park, meanwhile, will be irrigated with recycled, purified sewage to be treated in a plant built in the park.

For City Hall watchers such as Girardot and economist Brian Browne, who's been a member of the PUC's Revenue Bond Oversight Committee, the new usage restrictions put San Francisco in a precarious position, given that the city's population is expected to grow.

"I believe in 10 years we'll be in a position to have to go out and buy water," Girardot says.

Harrington, for his part, doesn't rule out this possibility. Current water plans, he says, assume the city will grow by 72,000 residential units by the year 2030. He says the most important part of the agreement wasn't limiting San Francisco water — it was in getting the suburbs to help pay upfront for infrastructure costs, thus giving San Francisco ratepayers a break.

Water supplies, he says, are fluid no matter what the agreement says. Harrington suggests that if the need for more water became urgent, San Francisco could buy water from the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts, which also draw water from the Tuolumne.

Harrington leaves open the possibility of renegotiating last year's environmental deal when it expires in 2018. And he doesn't rule out someday revisiting the legally squishy 184 million gallons per day water guarantee to the suburbs. A water negotiator for a growing metropolis such as San Francisco is like the water in a stream, relentlessly seeking the path of least resistance.

Whatever San Francisco's path may be, living here will mean contending with limits set by Mother Nature — just like everybody else.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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