Draining the river

Pub date April 17, 2007
WriterChris Albon

This winter was the fourth driest rainy season on record, and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the agency that owns the pipes running from the Sierras and controls the water supply for much of the Bay Area, is trying everything short of mandatory rationing to cut water use.

In press conferences and public statements, SFPUC officials are urging residents to take shorter showers and fix leaky faucets. But at the same time — with a lot less publicity — the agency is looking for ways to suck more freshwater into the reservoirs.

The SFPUC is working on a plan that could divert by 2030 another 25 million gallons a day — enough each year to cover San Francisco with more than a foot of water — from its natural source, the Tuolumne River, to meet the demands of East Bay and South Bay customers.

"They are taking the easy way out by opening up the spigot instead of working with their customers to pursue a more sustainable plan," Heather Dempsey, Bay Area program director of the Tuolumne River Trust, told the Guardian.

Individual conservation is bringing San Francisco’s per capita water use down, according to the SFPUC. But the agency estimates that the Bay Area’s demand will increase 19 percent by 2030. The way to meet that demand, agency officials say, is to increase the daily diversion of 265 million gallons to 300 million gallons. Ten million of that will come from local aqua filters, recycled water, and conservation. The rest may come from the Tuolumne.

Dempsey said she’s concerned that less water for the river could further threaten struggling fish and wildlife populations. Only 625 Chinook salmon were counted in the river last year. While the salmon population fluctuates, even a high of 17,000 in 2000 looks troubling; in 1944 the count was 130,000.

The SFPUC is working on the plan’s environmental impact reports and is considering alternatives to diverting more water, but those alternatives may cost more than the agency and the public are willing to pay.

Tony Winnicker, communications director of the SFPUC, told us the agency is interested in recycling, but that’s very expensive. The plan to retrofit and upgrade the system is already estimated to cost $4.3 billion, which will triple water rates by 2015, when the project is complete.

"It’s cheaper to rely on water that flows from the Sierras by gravity than it is to fund alternatives," Winnicker said. "But we have to diversify our water supply, and this year reminds us of that more than ever."

Bay Area residents use more water per capita than people living in the Los Angeles area. Los Angeles and its surrounding sprawl have not increased their diversion since 1980, according to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

With all of the projected demand coming from the SFPUC’s wholesale customers, Dempsey says the agency should be working with those customers to reduce their draw on the natural system.

Jennifer Clary of Clean Water Action believes this is attainable.

"It’s not crazy to set a goal of not taking more water and to figure out how to create incentives to reach that goal," Clary told us. "It’s not rocket science. People are already doing it. What we need is a commitment." (Chris Albon)