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SFPUC: Designing for Drought

While lakes and rivers overflow SFPUC persists

• • • • • • • May 2024 • • • • • • •

Glenn Rogers
Glenn Rogers

For the second year, the SFPUC has canceled salmon fishing on the Tuolumne River and throughout California. That will cause hardship for thousands of local fishermen at Fishermen’s Wharf and indigenous people. On April 23, the SFPUC met to discuss water policy. In the audience were members of the Tuolumne River Trust, the Sierra Club, the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, and a representative of the indigenous peoples.


The SFPUC, which curtails the amount of water released into the Tuolumne River, designed the Design Drought plan — a plan that is so far-reaching that it projects a scenario — a drought that last happened 25,000 years ago. (Discovered by research into a Public Records Act.) It unnecessarily curtails water to fishermen while releasing water to farmers at 4 of every 5 gallons. (See the crops below for excessive water-consuming offenders). SFPUC’s plan for this scheme is similar to anticipating the snowfall in the Ice Age which lasted roughly 11,700 years ago. This plan is folly.


Despite a surplus of water in our reservoirs sufficient to withstand a drought for four years, the SFPUC has imposed a drought surcharge on San Francisco ratepayers! The SFPUC is myopically planning for an increase in water use even though the demand in San Francisco has declined in the last three decades.”


Redwood Creek in Muir Woods has Chinook Salmon. It also has a program to encourage salmon to return every year. The number of people who visit Muir Woods is limited to control traffic, and the parking lot is not overcrowded. Refuse pickup is determined by limiting overflow of trash into the creek. Safe to say, all park activities are guided by the overarching principle of fostering salmon return. Wouldn’t it be ideal if the SFPUC had a similar principle for the the Tuolumne River?


Almonds, pistachios, walnuts, oranges and apricot trees are part of the problem of a list of crops growing in the San Joaquin Valley. These trees require year-round water; otherwise, they perish. Having the field go fallow is not a water-saving solution for these crops. Alfalfa is a crop for cattle that requires copious amounts of water. One walnut—not the whole tree—requires 5 gallons of water, for example. These crops should not be grown there because of their intense water use. The salmon, which also require water, should win this fight for resources, in the opinion of many Californians.


The SFPUC Commissioners are Tim Paulson, Anthony Rivera, Newsha Ajami, Kate Stacy, Dennis Herrera, Sophie Maxwell and Donna Hood. Commissioners Sophie Maxwell and Donna Hood are retiring. Both will be missed, since they voted most judiciously about the water needs for San Francisco and the Tuolumne River. Let’s hope the Mayor picks good stewards of the environment as replacement Commissioners.


Despite a surplus of water in our reservoirs sufficient to withstand a drought for four years, the SFPUC has imposed a drought surcharge on San Francisco ratepayers! The SFPUC is myopically planning for an increase in water use even though the demand in San Francisco has declined in the last three decades. For example, Parkmerced has a 13% vacancy rate, and now, even worse, the business sector in San Francisco has a 36% vacancy rate! To prepare for these imagined demands for water, the SFPUC has designed a plan to pump groundwater from the west side of San Francisco’s underground aquifers. All of this planning, building, extraction, pumping and distribution of underground water is expensive and unnecessary and will raise the cost of water for San Francisco residents.


The State has recently asked the City of San Francisco to restrict the water it takes from the Tuolumne River. This effort is part of a larger plan to limit the water use of thousands of long-time users. At the April 23rd meeting, several audience members requested that the SFPUC accept the new water plan rather than challenge it in court.


In the year 2022 /2023, residents used, as an aggregate, 55 gallons of water per day—a historic low—despite a population increase of 34% during the same time frame. Only 4% of the population uses 100 gallons of water daily. The most significant offender in the water use category is Purissima Hills at over 180 gallons of water per day.

BAWSCA anticipates a new downward trend in water use. Unfortunately, this discussion did not include agricultural water savings, which uses 80% of water in the San Joaquin Valley. For example, farmers could increase drip irrigation and stop the wasteful use of flood irrigation.

We can only hope the SFPUC will manage water use honestly.

Glenn Rogers, RLA
Landscape Architect / License 3223

May 2024

Glenn Rogers
Glenn Rogers

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