October 1, 2008

No New Water for Bay Area Residents Through 2018

By Julia Scott

SAN FRANCISCO -- Bay Area residents who get their water from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in the Sierra will not be allotted any "new" water under a proposal to maximize water resources through 2018, although water rates will double in that time to pay for upgrades to the system, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission officials said Tuesday.

The staff of the commission is backing a regional water supply plan that would avoid the controversial environmental pitfall of having to take water from the Tuolumne River to quench the thirst of a growing Bay Area population, principally by "finding" more water through conservation, groundwater pumping and using recycled water for golf course irrigation. The Tuolumne is a federally protected river.

Most importantly, if approved by the full commission Oct. 30, the plan would allow work to start on 17 urgent seismic upgrade projects that will guarantee the Bay Area's water supply in the event of a major earthquake.

The projects include the creation of a Bay Division Tunnel that would safely protect water pipes deep underground and replace the Calaveras Dam, which lies over an earthquake fault in Santa Clara County.

The water plan includes a final environmental report that took more than three years to put together and encompasses responses to about 1,300 comments from local residents.

It predicts that the SFPUC -- which pumps water to 2.5 million residents in San Francisco, San Mateo and Alameda counties and much of Santa Clara County -- will need to meet a peak water demand of 300 million gallons per day by 2030, and this was the reason given for an initial proposal to divert 25 million gallons per day from the Tuolomne.

The current proposal sets a maximum water diversion rate of 265 million gallons per day through 2018, enough to fill 10,600 swimming pools. The average Bay Area resident uses 97 gallons of water a day, roughly the same as commercial and industrial customers put together.

"This project assumes that we would not have to cut back more than 20 percent, even in a drastic drought scenario. It's bringing the system toward more reliability so we don't have to do mandatory rationing," said Ed Harrington, general manager of the SFPUC.

The water plan pushes many crucial decisions to 2018, such as deciding where the Bay Area will get all the water it needs in 2030 and beyond. Water officials changed the plan to focus on 2018 instead of 2030 to gain the support of environmental groups, without which the crucial water safety projects cannot proceed.

"Our first choice would have capped diversion from the river until 2030. We see this as a compromise that will allow the seismic upgrades to move forward," said Peter Drekmeier, Bay Area program director for the Tuolomne River Trust.

"In the meantime, we can examine projected water demands which we feel were inflated," he added.

Drekmeier also criticized the report for not using climate change projections to show how the melting Sierra Nevada snowpack will affect future water flows, which is sure to influence how much water the Hetch Hetchy system receives and at what time of year.

SFPUC officials say climate change science is not yet precise enough to tell them how it will affect the Tuolomne watershed, but that those numbers will be clearer in the coming years.

Customers will be paying dearly for the water delivery upgrades, if they are not already. Water rates will double from 2008 to 2015 regionwide, and some local water agencies have already imposed a first round of rate increases to soften a future blow. A typical residential water bill of $55 a month will shoot up to $115, according to the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency.

The water plan puts most of the responsibility for lowering water use onto members of water supply and conservation agency, which includes water agencies from Half Moon Bay to Hayward who buy water from the SFPUC. They will now have to come up with a way to "find" 25 million gallons per day of non-Hetch Hetchy water by 2018.

It still may not be enough. Even with a conservation and water recycling scenario that achieves a savings of 15 million gallons per day -- which is the amount the agency was working toward before the SFPUC proposal imposed a reduction of another 10 million gallons per day -- group General Manager Art Jensen said that he told the SFPUC that the cities in his service area would need more than the amount of 184 million gallons per day they are allocated under the current plan.

"The number was selected unilaterally -- it was not the number we would have chosen. We've been working with San Francisco to figure out how it can be administered fairly. If you were to ask how we are going to go about it, the disturbing thing is that no one has done their homework on it," Jensen said.

Bay Area water agencies now produce nearly 7 million gallons per day of recycled water for irrigation, and the number will climb to 9 million gallons by 2018, according to Jensen. San Francisco does not recycle any water at present but is developing a special treatment plant to be located near the San Francisco Zoo that will create 4 million gallons per day of reusable water. The remainder of "off the grid" water will mostly come from buildings adopting more water- efficient fixtures.

For more details on the proposed water system improvement program, go to sfwater.org.

Reach Julia Scott at 650-348-4340 or [email protected]

Originally published by Julia Scott, San Mateo County Times.

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