Will the new Hetch Hetchy plan wring San Francisco dry?

Categories: Environment

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Some question conservation targets in water-system upgrade

By Peter Jamison

The $4.4 billion plan to upgrade the Bay Area’s aging water system — a vast public-works edifice that delivers water from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park to San Francisco and surrounding cities — represents a fraught balancing act between the thirst of a rapidly swelling urban hub and the vulnerability of natural resources that have borne more than their fair share of strain from the steady development of California over the past century. In approving the plan at the end of last month, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) and Planning Commission members seem to have paid heed to the concerns of environmental groups: For example, a proposal to divert up to 35 million gallons of water a day from the Tuolumne River was scaled back to 2 million gallons a day.

But questions remain about whether the plan’s grand compromise reckons adequately with the human factor. Officials from the South and East Bay have been groaning this fall about the scale of conservation efforts demanded of them in the plan; communities in the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, which includes outlying municipalities that buy Hetch Hetchy water from SFPUC, are being asked to conserve and recycle an additional 25 million gallons per day of water at least by 2018. Yet more problematic, however, is the conservation goal of an additional 10 million gallons a day laid out for San Francisco itself.

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The sort of easy conservation measures possible in sprawling Bay Area suburbs aren’t as viable in the city, according to David Sunding, co-director of the Berkeley Water Center. “San Francisco, from a conservation point of view, has a couple of things against it,” Sunding told SF Weekly. “It’s fairly dense. In some places, like Walnut Creek or Antioch, a lot of water usage is outdoor usage – trees and shrubs and things. Not in San Francisco.” Moreover, Sunding said that a useful conservation practice in urban areas — installing low-water-use plumbing equipment in new buildings — is also less viable here, since much of the city is already developed. “In some ways, the low-hanging fruits are already done,” Sunding said. “There’s not as much scope for conservation in San Francisco as there is in other parts of California. It’s already pretty efficient.”

Can city residents look forward to a painful water shortage, particularly in light of this year's severe drought? Some are more sanguine than Sunding on San Francisco’s potential for saving water. Jennifer Clary, a water-supply expert with the environmental organization Clean Water Action, estimates that the city could save an additional 5 million gallons per day of water through increased recycling alone. “What this is going to take is really learning how to live within our means as the Bay Area continues to have economic growth,” Clary said. Millions of people in the profligate Golden State cooperating to live within their means? Stay tuned.


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