Will the City Have Enough Water?steve lawrence photo

During an El Nino winter it is perhaps an odd time to ask whether San Francisco will have enough water in the future. Yet the question needs to be asked.

During the past eighteen months developments, when considered together, suggest that serious water shortages may occur.

In Fall 2008 the technical-sounding Phased WSIP Variant was adopted by the City. This limits the City’s Hetchy water system to selling no more than 265 million gallons of water per day on an average annual basis. As this is about the quantity of water our the water system now sells, the limitation essentially says that we will not permit demand for surface (river) water to grow. Instead, the City has agreed to develop recycled and groundwater sources, and to conserve more aggressively than it has in the past.

Then last Spring the City made a new agreement with its suburban water customers. While the City owns the Hetchy water system, long ago it agreed to serve customers upstream and along, or near to, its water lines. Indeed, these suburban customers take more than two-thirds of the system’s water. This past Spring the City assured these customers that they could take about 190 million gallons per day (mgd) of the 265 mgd the water system is limited to selling. The balance remaining to be sold to users in the City is about 75 mgd.

Demand for water in the City exceeds 75 mgd. Also, the City is growing. Candlestick Point - Hunters Point is to develop 10,500 units of housing; Treasure Island is about to build thousands of units; Park Merced is upsizing by 5700 units; and very possibly the Octavia corridor will add thousands of housing units as well. These are only the large developments; there are many smaller ones. Population in the City is growing and growth is expected to accelerate. This means more people to serve, and more property to protect after an earthquake.

While demand for water has been declining in the City, due to more efficient appliances and a felt need to use water wisely, the declines are considered unlikely to continue. San Francisco’s population is aging as well as growing.

To bridge the gap between expected demand and available water supply, the City is developing groundwater and recycled water sources. Recycled water will be used for irrigating, for example in Golden Gate Park where groundwater is now used. That will free up groundwater, which will then supplement the drinking water we get from the Hetchy system.

But there are questions about groundwater. At a meeting held Wednesday January 20, questions about the quality of groundwater, and about whether the City could develop it quickly enough and in sufficient quantities arose. Officials did not say, as they had in the past, that groundwater would be blended so that it makes up only a small percentage of the drinking water of those served by Sunset Reservoir. Also, officials asserted broadly that groundwater was safe, that it would not be blended for health—but would only be blended for taste. Despite these assertions, some fear that groundwater contains troublesome concentrations of manganese, or of pharmaceuticals for which there are not yet state and federal requirements. Questions also arose about whether the groundwater aquifer (underground reservoir) would recharge sufficiently so that in the long wells will not run dry.

Should groundwater not pan out as hoped, questions remain about whether and how the City can make do with 75 mgd of water. Already San Franciscans use less water per person than anywhere else in the country.

So as the El Nino rain falls, let us hope it lasts. Lastly, let us hope that the City has sufficient water not only for ordinary times, but also for a disaster. After all, it was only after the big 1906 quake that it came to be recognized that the City needed to develop a larger, more reliable water supply.

Steve Lawrence is a Westside resident and is a stalwart defender of the public purse at SF Public Utility Commission meetings. Feedback: lawrence@westsideobserver.com

February 2010

hetch hetchy dam

City's PUC Falling Behind on Water Fix-up?

By Brian Browne

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) creeps along with the Hetch Hetchy (HH) system fix-up. HH is a complex gravity system including dams, hydro-power plants, siphons, pumps, tunnels and pipelines that stretches from the High Sierras to the Bay. It provides water for approximately 2.4 million local and regional water customers with undoubtedly some of the most pristine water available in the USA. HH is also probably the only federally mandated municipal power provider in the US.

The 1913 Raker Act granted San Francisco the right to build dams and extract water from the Tuolumne River and provide water and power to municipalities and municipal customers. The system receives approximately 80 to 85 percent of its water from the Tuolumne River. Under Raker the SFPUC has junior riparian water rights. The senior rights are vested in the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts. The SFPUC may only extract water after the flows of the Tuolumne River meet certain criteria at different times of the year. Approximately sixty percent of all Tuolumne River water goes to the irrigation districts and SFPUC. The Hetch Hetchy system receives the residual amount of its deliverable water from sources west of the Oakdale intakes for the San Joaquin pipelines.

lexicon of termsThe system is over 7 decades old and for years it has been known that this marvel of engineering must be repaired and improved. Over the years, many plans were advanced but never became operational. In 2002 the SFPUC boldly announced that they had a 76 project local and regional fix-up plan, known as the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), and all that was needed was the funding authority and the SFPUC would implement and complete this plan by 2015.

Blank Check In 2002 San Francisco voters passed Proposition A granting the SFPUC the right to issue $1.6 billion in revenue bonds. This was trumped by 2002 Proposition E (Ammiano) that removed the voters’ the right to issue water and wastewater bonds and ceded it to the Board of Supervisors. SFPUC now had a blank check to implement their plan. The voters also passed Proposition P, which created the Revenue Bond Oversight Committee (RBOC) as a ratepayer advocate to monitor the expenditure of revenue bond funds.

Who Controls the Water? The 29 wholesale customers making up the Bay Area Water Users Association were clearly dubious. Their politicians passed three pieces of legislation AB2058 which morphed their entity into the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency with powers analogous to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. SFPUC was welcome to join and cede approximately 70 percent of its now 100 percent governance of the Hetch Hetchy system. water use chart

BAWUA successfully lobbied to pass AB1823 which called for 50 percent of the Hetch Hetchy fix-up work to be done by 2010 and 100 percent by 2015. SB 1870 collaborative efforts by local and regional folks created a regional financing authority to ensure the fix up would be funded in the event Props. A and E failed.

In 2002 both Props A and E passed and the SFPUC was given the green light to implement its multibillion dollar CIP.

In 2005 a new plan, Water Supply Improvement Project (WSIP) was unveiled under a new manager. It proposed major changes to the CIP including a system wide project environmental impact review (PEIR) and established a new concept called level of service. The large and expensive PEIR basically caused a major re-work of the original plan (CIP) and cost large amounts of time and resources. The levels of service are stated goals as to how quickly and at what levels the system may be restored after a major system break. It is unclear what, if any, mathematical model derived these so called ‘levels of service.”

Score card. The local percent complete is shown as 48.1% complete. The larger regional fix up is 13.3% and the total bill has reached approximately $4.5 billion. Why? It appears, based on extrapolation of current SFPUC costs and the blending in of the debt service for these billions in expenditures that conservatively rates will increase by a factor of 5 (6) before this system is finally completed.

In 2008 a “variant” to the WSIP was implemented under yet another new general manager. This plan extends the fix-up until 2018 and claims that the SFPUC will be able to deliver 265 million gallons of water per day (MGD) for regional and local customers from current pristine sources i.e. Tuolumne river and local reservoirs.

265. This 265MGD number is important. The current “variant” plan calls for the peninsula customers to receive 184 MGD and for SF to receive 81 MGD a total of 265 MGD. The city is currently negotiating a new Master Water Sales Agreement (MWSA), 1984-2009, and if this amount is enshrined in contract then the city customers could face water shortages, labeled by the SFPUC as “conservation.”

Historically, using SFPUC data, since 1984 (when the MWSA was signed), on average the Hetch Hetchy system has delivered 251 MGD with BAWSCA (nee BAWUA) receiving on average 163 MGD and SF 89 MGD. Using a longer historical period shows the annual average deliveries from the SFPUC decreasing more.

Over forecasting has some major negative impacts. State law demands that forecasts must be reliable and in the absence of available water residential and commercial projects may be stopped. The over forecasting phenomenon leads to underestimating the cost per unit of water. Over forecasting leads to over expectations in writing contracts such as was done in 1984 and appears to being replicated in 2009.

Competition. Yes, SFPUC is a municipal supplier of public power to both public and private customers if it so elects. It actually has private customers at the Ferry Building and SFO. It could win market share by providing a better widget, rather than socializing an existing private company, that is well scrutinized by the California Public Utilities Commission. The 1940 Supreme Court in affirming SFPUC as a municipal power provider stipulated that Hetch Hetch power could not be sold to PG&E for resale, but exhorted the SFPUC to compete against PG&E for both public and private customers

Looking Forward. San Francisco can look forward to the strong possibility of ceding governance of the Hetch Hetchy system, rate spikes of a magnitude that are not being discussed, intergenerational transfers of great debt to future San Franciscans, and the real possibility the system won’t really get fixed and all these well advertised calamities will befall an unprepared service area.

The Mayor, Board of Supervisors, Commission, and RBOC must exert real oversight and not externalize their implosive political aspirations onto our water and municipal power system. These folks need to confront the real issue: Can the current business model at the SFPUC actually plan and implement such a vast infrastructure project?

December 2008