environmental group convinces San Francisco to stop its water grab. But not
everyone is happy.
By Robert Gammon
San Francisco's plan to take an
additional 25 million gallons of water a day from the wild and scenic Tuolumne
River was an outrage. Over the next two decades, the proposed water grab would
have damaged a spectacular watershed near Yosemite, devastated salmon runs in the
Sierra foothills, and further threatened the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin
Delta. Nonetheless, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission was steaming
ahead with its controversial plan late last year — until it ran into Peter
Drekmeier and the Tuolumne River Trust.
Drekmeier, Bay Area program director
for the trust, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Tuolumne, strongly
opposed San Francisco's plan and went to work to stop it. The SFPUC, which
already siphons 225 million gallons of water of day from the river, had claimed
it needed more to satiate the thirst of its customers — specifically, the 27
other Bay Area agencies that it sells water to. But Tuolumne River Trust
staffers and others dug deep into San Francisco's proposal and discovered that the
supposed increased demand for water was wildly exaggerated.
For example, the City of Hayward,
which already buys about 19.3 million gallons of water a day from the SFPUC,
had told the agency that it would need a total of 27.9 million gallons a day by
2030. Hayward was projecting a 45 percent jump at a time when other cities are
turning to water conservation and water recycling for their future water needs.
But as this newspaper reported last year, a closer look at Hayward's estimate
revealed that it was based on overly optimistic projections of population and
job growth. Eventually, city officials backed off their projections, and told
the SFPUC that it should not rely on them, describing their water needs as
"less urgent at this time." "It's clear that the projections for
more water were inflated, and the projections for water conservation were
underestimated," Drekmeier told Eco Watch.
Drekmeier's nonprofit also noted
that the SFPUC's plan would cut off much-needed fresh water for the Delta, and
harm a picturesque watershed just outside Yosemite National Park. The stretch
along the Tuolumne, below Hetch Hetchy and above Don Pedro Lake, features
waterfalls, giant pines, and abundant wildlife. Each year, thousands of
vacationers visit the area. Two of the more popular destinations are the City
of Berkeley's Tuolumne Family Camp and the City of San Francisco's Camp Mather.
In addition, the state Department of
Fish and Game warned that taking more water from the Tuolumne would further
devastate a Chinook salmon run below Don Pedro. According to stats from Fish
and Game and Drekmeier, the Chinook count below the giant reservoir plummeted
from 18,000 adults eight years ago to just 217 last year.
The Tuolumne River Trust urged the
SFPUC to abandon its water grab completely, and hinted that it would sue to
stop it. Although the agency found the nonprofit's arguments persuasive, it
refused to completely give up its additional designs on the river. Instead, it
agreed to a compromise, which it approved on October 30. That deal calls for
the SFPUC to cap water sales at current levels for the next ten years. The pact
also includes a provision to take an additional 2 million gallons of water a
day from the Tuolumne during extended droughts. "This was a major victory
for the wild and scenic Tuolumne River," Drekmeier said. "A year ago
we faced a proposal to divert an additional 25 million gallons of water per day
from the Tuolumne — enough to fill 1,000 swimming pools. We've come along
But not everyone is happy with the
new pact. Like Drekmeier, Jeff Miller, director of the Alameda Creek Alliance,
supports the SFPUC's larger $4.4 billion plan to upgrade the Hetch Hetchy water
system and retrofit it to withstand a large earthquake. But Miller and the
Alameda Creek Alliance are upset that the SFPUC reached a compromise over the
Tuolumne River but ignored their concerns about Alameda Creek, the East Bay's
largest tributary to San Francisco Bay.
For more than a decade, Miller and
the alliance have fought to restore a steelhead trout run in the creek, from
the bay in Fremont, through Niles Canyon, and up to the oak-studded hills south
of Pleasanton and Livermore. But those efforts may be stymied permanently by
another aspect of the SFPUC's plans. The agency, as part of the pact it
approved late last month, is forging ahead with its plan to starve the creek of
water during the rainy winter months.
The agency will grab the rainwater
in a diversion dam near Little Yosemite in the Sunol Regional Wilderness and
send all of it to the Calaveras Dam, once its earthquake retrofit is completed
in 2012. The agency claims it needs the water for San Francisco and its
additional 1.7 million customers around the Bay Area. But Miller argues that
the city has not done nearly enough to improve its water conservation and water
recycling programs. "San Francisco, which is ranked as the second greenest
US city in 2007, should be interested in operating an ecologically sustainable
water system," he said.
Miller, who also works for the
Center for Biological Diversity, one of the most active environmental groups in
the West, had asked the SFPUC to knock down the diversion dam in Little
Yosemite and let the fresh water flow freely into Alameda Creek. Miller noted
that Calaveras reservoir already is supplied by the rainwater runoff from Mount
Hamilton. But the SFPUC refused the alliance's request. As a result, Miller and
his group may end up having to travel the same path that so many other
environmental groups have taken to protect wildlife — going to court.