San Francisco views itself as one of the most progressive cities in the world. Most residents see themselves as environmentalists, deeply concerned about the fate of the planet. So what's up with the city's own water agency? Why is it pressing ahead with a plan that could damage a scenic watershed near Yosemite, devastate struggling salmon and trout runs in the Sierra foothills, and wreak havoc on one of California's most threatened resources — the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta?
The controversial plan by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission calls for taking an additional twenty-five million gallons of water a day from the Tuolumne River — enough to satiate the thirst of a midsize city. That's on top of the 225 million gallons that the agency already siphons each day from the Tuolumne, which runs from the high Sierra to the San Joaquin River in the Central Valley. The river supplies drinking water for San Francisco, plus another 1.7 million Bay Area residents. The additional twenty-five million gallons would be diverted from the river at Hetch Hetchy, the agency's massive reservoir inside Yosemite National Park.
The San Francisco water agency says it needs the additional water not for San Franciscans, but to meet the demands of the twenty-seven other public agencies and cities that it sells water to. However, a closer look at the agency's documents reveals that its predictions about future water needs may not only be wrong, but motivated by something other than need.
The SFPUC's plan comes at a time that global warming has heightened fears over water scarcity. Many climatologists agree that rising temperatures could result in a smaller Sierra snow pack each winter. In addition, there are growing concerns about the fate of the Delta, which recently suffered a dramatic die-off of Delta smelt. River diversions for agriculture and drinking water are a likely cause of the small fish's rapid decline.
Along with cutting off much-needed fresh water for the Delta, the SFPUC's plan threatens a stretch of picturesque watershed, featuring waterfalls, granite canyons, abundant wildlife, and giant sugar pines. Each year, hundreds of thousands of visitors pass through the region on their way to Yosemite, and many stop to hike, fish, and camp along the south, middle, and north forks of the Tuolumne River between Hetch Hetchy and Don Pedro Lake. Two of the more popular destinations are the city of San Francisco's Camp Mather and the city of Berkeley's Tuolumne Family Camp.
The California Department of Fish and Game also is expressing grave concerns about the Tuolumne below Don Pedro Lake. In fact, the department was so worried about the likely devastating effects on the already shrinking Chinook salmon and steelhead trout populations that it urged the SFPUC to abandon its plans to take more river water. According to Fish and Game stats, the Chinook salmon count below Don Pedro dam plummeted in the past six years from 18,000 adults to about 600. "I think they need to look at other alternatives," Greg Martinelli, a Fish and Game senior environmental scientist, told Full Disclosure.
On the surface at least, one of the driving forces behind the agency's water grab appears to have been the city of Hayward. Several years ago, the SFPUC asked its customers to predict their future water needs. Many of them reported back that water conservation and recycling efforts would result in less future water use. By contrast, Hayward, the agency's largest customer, said it would require a huge influx of water by 2030.
Hayward currently buys about 19.3 million gallons of water a day from the SFPUC — far more than any other customer. But according to agency documents, Hayward predicted that it would need 27.9 million gallons a day by 2030 — a 45 percent increase. In other words, Hayward said it would require more than one-third of the additional twenty-five million gallons taken from the Tuolumne. No other SFPUC customer came remotely close to that figure.
But it turns out that a significant portion of Hayward's water desire was based on wildly optimistic growth projections that likely will never materialize.
To understand why requires a short explanation of water usage. Traditionally, the cities that use the most water are home to businesses that employ lots of out-of-town workers. Think of all those commuters arriving at their jobs and immediately going to the bathroom.
For years, Hayward officials have over-confidently predicted that their city is on the verge of becoming a 21st-century job hub, a sort of Silicon Valley North. "The city anticipates, and is actively marketing to attract high technology manufacturing facilities to locate in Hayward due to the affordable and available land for such purposes and proximity of the area to major freeways," city officials wrote in an October 2003 memo to the SFPUC. However, such rosy predictions have yet to come true and probably never will.
Apparently realizing that Hayward's overconfidence was driving a plan to squeeze more water out of the Tuolumne, Hayward Public Works Director Robert Bauman recently fired off a letter, urging the SFPUC to back off its water diversion plans. Bauman did not return a phone call seeking comment, but in his September 20 letter, which served as an official comment to the SFPUC's draft environmental report, he described Hayward's future water needs as "less urgent at this time."
The Tuolumne water grab, which is in the environmental review stage, is part of a larger proposal to seismically upgrade the agency's aging water pipes. Many of the pipes were built more than a hundred years ago and are highly vulnerable because they cross five active earthquake faults, including the Hayward and San Andreas.
Environmentalists strongly support the $4.3 billion retrofit, but they adamantly oppose the removal of more water from the Tuolumne. "What we should be looking at is more efficient use of water," said Peter Drekmeier, Bay Area program director for the San Francisco-based Tuolumne River Trust.
But despite Hayward's about-face, SFPUC officials are forging ahead with their plans, prompting some environmentalists to suspect that the agency's true motive is profit. "They know they're going to make a lot of money in the future selling water," explained Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the most active environmental groups in the West.
SFPUC spokesman Tony Winnicker denied that the agency plans to horde water in order to make more money later. He also attempted to downplay the controversy over the Tuolumne, noting that the draft environmental impact report includes an alternative plan in which the agency would leave the river alone. "We're very eager to find a solution ... in which there's agreement among all the stakeholders," he said.
But despite Winnicker's comments, the environmental report clearly identifies the agency's plans to take an additional twenty-five million gallons as "the preferred alternative." In other words, the agency wants the water. Moreover, it would be highly unusual for a public agency to abandon its "preferred alternative" this late in the process. That is, of course, unless the San Francisco Board of Supervisors rejects the water agency's proposal when it reviews it next year.
Miller, for one, is hoping that the board — unlike the water agency — will reflect its environmentally progressive constituents. "San Francisco is a green city," he said. "It should be leading the way in terms of water conservation and water recycling."
Send muck, I'll rake: Robert.Gammon@EastBayExpress.com
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