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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

For Tuolumne River Water Hogging, San Francisco Gets to Name its Own Fine

Posted By on Wed, Dec 23, 2009 at 11:29 AM

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What Happens if we Suck the Tuolomne Dry? We Write Ourselves a Ticket

One would think that upon hearing the question, "Shall I write a story about how you're the most brilliant bureaucrat in history, and that you negotiated a deal that's way better for San Francisco than anyone realizes," a city official would answer in the affirmative. San Francisco waterworks manager Ed Harrington, however, demurred. But I don't think he should be so bashful.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission recently finalized a deal involving environmental groups and suburban water users limiting the Hetch Hetchy water system's take from the Tuolumne River to 265 million gallons per day. The limit was necessary, environmental groups said, because reduced water levels could endanger fish species and other aspects of the river ecosystem.

But it appears as if the deal could potentially be less favorable to environmental interests than its billing  has suggested.

It turns out that if San Francisco and other users on the system were to go over the 265 million gallons per day limit, users would pay a tariff, and the money would be used for unspecified environmental remediation measures on the upper Tuolomne.

But guess who gets to set the fee? San Francisco.

Harrington, in other words, cut a deal whereby we get to essentially set the price of our own traffic ticket. City agencies such as the Rate Fairness Board and the Public Utilities Commission will soon begin deliberating about how much the city should fine it's potentially water-hogging self.

I asked Harrington to explain to me why I shouldn't think San Francisco had snookered the environmental groups. Why can't we just set it at, say, 99 cents? He said setting the rate too low would undermine the awesome relationship San Francisco -- the city that flooded the beautiful Hetch Hetchy Valley and in so doing broke Sierra Club founder John Muir's heart -- has with environmentalists.

"We had a lot of conversations about the environmental community about trust. If you put the surcharge at a dollar, what does that do for us? This time, we have made the commitment, and they trust us. We said we will set it high enough to make a disincentive to go over 265," Harrington said.

A representative of the Tuolumne River Trust said he'd try to find someone to call us back to speak about the tariff issue despite holiday short staffing. But the call didn't come.

Further arguing why this wasn't a genius deal, Harrington suggested the game isn't over yet. If San Francisco were somehow to set a trivially low water-hogging penalty, and then suck the river dry, environmentalists might strike back.

"They did not want us to take more off the Tuolumne. If you don't follow up, mitigation measures kick in, and they could sue us, theoretically," Harrington said.

Theoretical lawsuits? That sounds about as scary as set-your-own fines.



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Matt Smith

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