San Francisco: Lower quality water and no say on the matter?

What this Article is About

Regulations implemented by bureaucracies need to have basis in legislation passed by elected officials or in voter approval at the ballot box.  The Nine-County Coalition has on numerous occasions pointed that increasingly legislation is designed to empower agencies with significant powers, including the power to interpret legislation rather freely.  It appears that some residents of one Bay Area county, San Francisco, are grappling with the question of where the S.F. Public Utilities Commission obtained the power to drastically change the composition of the water residents drink.

Taking Advice From an Expert

  "The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there's no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in."

Willie Brown – California Assemblyman, San Francisco Mayor, and political philosopher – wrote those iconic words in reference to the Transbay Terminal construction being $300 million over budget. The advice boils down to just do it, because by the time a lot of people find out what you did, you can say it’s too late to undo it.

That appears to have been the strategy chosen by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in their effort to substitute pristine Hetch Hetchy water with blended water. Required public outreach apparently was not absent, but it was subtle -- until April 2017, when the SFPUC turned on the spigots of blended water in selected City neighborhoods and rolled out ads extolling the benefits of the project. 

SFPUC On Groundwater

San Francisco residents are receiving blended water right now during the first year in several that rainfall is adequate; however, this is SFPUC's description of groundwater:

"The concept of groundwater storage and recovery, also known as “conjunctive water management”, consists of storing water in wet years and recovering that water for use during dry years. As part of the GSR [groundwater storage and recovery] project, surface water will be used instead of groundwater in wet years, allowing the groundwater to recharge through rainfall and decreased pumping. This will create a savings account of up to 20 billion gallons of groundwater that will be stored in the aquifer."

The illustration and description of groundwater are on the SFPUC website in the section "Regional Groundwater Supply & Recovery."  The "San Francisco Groundwater Supply Project" is described in a separate section, complete with cheering for the project.


Who is Getting the Groundwater Blend?

Not everyone in San Francisco gets to drink blended water.  Most east-side residents will continue to drink pristine Hetch Hetchy water.  The reason given by the SFPUC is that groundwater basins are located on the west side of the City.

Why the Change?

Since 1934, San Francisco residents have enjoyed highest-quality water from the Tuolumne River gathered in the O’Shaughnessy Dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley.  85% of the City’s water supply has been from Hetch Hetchy, with 15% reservoir (stored) water providing extra supplies when needed.  Now things have changed, and residents as well as some members of the Board of Supervisors are not happy about it.

In an effort to receive clarity on the matter, one of the west-side Supervisors, Norman Yee, called for a hearing on the groundwater project.  On May 24, Mr. Yee was joined by other Supervisors whose districts are receiving the bulk of the groundwater blend – Fewer, Ronen, Safai, and Sheehy.  Steven Ritchie, Assistant General Manager of the Water Enterprise, gave a presentation on the groundwater project, and he and Dr. Tomas Aragon, Chief of Population Health, responded to questions from the Supervisors.  Approximately 30 people spoke during the Public Comments section of the hearing.  After two hours, numerous assurances from the SFPUC, skepticism from the Supervisors, and serious concerns from the public, Supervisor Yee continued the meeting to a future session of the committee.

The SFPUC website contains much information on the groundwater project.  However, the hearing of May 24, a video of which can be found in SFGovTV, gives a useful and concise overview.  Steve Ritchie gave the following reasons for the project:

*  Reliance in only one source of water is unwise.
*  ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) predicts significant population growth; therefore water capacity must be increased.
*  Climate change is likely to affect the availability of Tuolumne River water.
*  Environmental concerns like fish populations dictate the development of alternative sources of water.
*  Natural and man-made disasters can occur at any time and destroy the O’Shaughnessy Dam or the reservoirs.
*  Once water infrastructure is built it must be used.  It cannot be left unused until an emergency occurs.

Concerns About the Change

The following are the concerns expressed by the Supervisors and the public during the hearing of May 24:

*  Groundwater contains numerous contaminants absent or found in much lower quantities in Hetch Hetchy water, such as chloride, chromium, manganese, nitrate, pharmaceutical waste, and discarded personal hygiene products.  Although the SFPUC indicates levels of these and other contaminants are significantly below acceptable limits, the fact remains they are present.

*  Nitrate is of particular concern because of its harm to small children, pregnant women, and individuals with compromised health.  The natural filtration touted by the SFPUC may not succeed in rendering the water safe.

*  Equity is a concern, because some residents will be able to afford alternatives such as bottled water, while others will not.

*  San Francisco banned commercial bottled water on government property on the basis that the City enjoyed pristine water.  Now, the water is no longer pristine, but the bottled water ban remains in force.

*  The SFPUC did not conduct sufficient or effective outreach to allow for suggestion of other alternatives, such as desalination and use of ground water for non-drinking purposes only.  The lack of effective outreach also prevented residents from becoming aware of the health hazards posed by groundwater.

*  Conservation will continue to increase as new habits are acquired and new water technologies are developed.   Therefore new sources of water may not be needed at this time to accommodate the large numbers of new residents that ABAG has predicted.

* The SFPUC’s authority to institute such drastic change is unclear.  Opponents of the project maintain that when voters passed Proposition A, Water Bonds, in 2002, they approved improvement of the water system, but the result has been degradation.  The SFPUC maintains diversification is an improvement.

Authority to drastically alter water composition?

Proposition A, Water Bonds, approved by voters in 2002, promised to use $1.6 billion in bond revenues to:  "upgrade and strengthen the system's pipelines, tunnels and other facilities against earthquakes; upgrade the system used to store water and pipe it to the Bay Area; upgrade the water distribution system in San Francisco; meet future water quality standards; and Increase water system capacity."   (The S.F. Department of Elections has done a great job digitizing voter pamphlets going back several years.)

Leaving aside the eventual fate of then Supervisor Leland Yee (not to be confused with current Supervisor Norman Yee), he correctly challenged Proposition A:  “I cannot support Proposition A as it is a $1.6 billion ($3.6 overall) blank check to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. During the debate at the Board of Supervisors on this issue, I was never convinced that the PUC had specific plans for, or thoughtfully studied what the money would be used for.”

The SFPUC was awarded its “blank check” in spite of Proposition A's vagueness.  Prop A's promise to increase the water system capacity is today being used as a source of authority for drastically changing the composition of the City’s water supply.

 California Senate Bill 1168, signed by Governor Jerry Brown September 2014,  “Requires adoption of a sustainable groundwater sustainability plan (GSP) by January 31, 2020, for all high or medium priority basins that are subject to critical conditions of overdraft and by January 31, 2022, for all other high and medium priority basins unless the basin is legally adjudicated or the local agency establishes it is otherwise being sustainably managed.”  

A straightforward interpretation of this bill says the objective is to ensure that wells are not overused!  Therefore, no clear-cut authority there for drastically changing the composition of City water.

Suggested Alternatives

Assuming that ABAG/MTC continue crowding people into Priority Development Areas, and assuming San Francisco City leaders continue attracting new residents with tax breaks and subsidized housing, then indeed the City will require increased water capacity.  Also, natural and man-made disasters could affect water flow from Hetch Hetchy.  Therefore, water-supply diversification is a good idea.  However, why groundwater?  Many individuals who offered public comments at the May 24 hearing asked that the groundwater project be stopped and alternative strategies studied, among which,

*  Expand the use of recycled and ground water for non-drinking purposes.
*  Accelerate the desalination project.
*  Continue water conservation efforts.