Prioritizing San Francisco’s Water Supply

As published in the San Francisco Examiner on August 16, 2018

Results from a recent public opinion poll commissioned by the Tuolumne River Trust were clear — San Franciscans conserve water largely to benefit the environment, and dramatically less so to enable more commercial development.

Of the 400-plus voters surveyed, 93 percent said they conserved water during the recent drought. Of those, 94 percent said improving the environment was a motivating factor, with 71 percent citing environmental concerns as playing a major role.

When asked if they would be more likely to conserve water if they knew it benefitted the environment, 72 percent responded yes. Conversely, only 21 percent said they would be more likely to conserve if it only enabled more development.

Unfortunately, the water we conserved during the recent drought did not benefit the environment. Instead, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which manages the Hetch Hetchy Water System, hoarded it behind dams, only to have to “dump” it during last year’s storms when all of its reservoirs were full.

The Tuolumne River, which fills the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, experienced one excessive year of high flows at the expense of five terrible years.

The survey also revealed a clear distinction between support for housing versus commercial development. 88 percent were supportive of creating more affordable housing, and 69 percent supported the creation of more market-rate housing. Only 40 percent were supportive of creating more office space.

Water is a limited resource, and San Francisco officials need to be more strategic in how it is allocated. Unfortunately, the trend of adding jobs much faster than housing is placing a huge burden on our community. As reported in the Examiner, according to the Planning Department’s Housing Balance report published in May, about 154,000 jobs were created in San Francisco between 2009 and 2016, but only 25,600 homes were added in a similar time period between 2007 and 2016. Not only did this exacerbate the housing crisis and traffic gridlock, it also hardened demand on water from the Tuolumne River.

The SFPUC now opposes the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan, which is overseen by the State Water Resources Control Board. The Plan is being updated to help restore the Bay-Delta estuary and rivers that feed it by improving instream flows. The SFPUC’s opposition is based largely on its perceived need to accommodate a rapid increase in commercial development in the coming years — a vision that is not embraced by a vast majority of San Francisco voters.

When asked about Plan Bay Area — a government-initiated roadmap that forecasts the addition of 1.3 million new jobs and 2 million more people to the Bay Area between 2010 and 2040 — 85 percent of those who had an opinion believed Plan Bay Area would make their quality of life worse.

A good example of misplaced development priorities is the Flower Mart Project, which is part of the Central SoMa Plan. This single project would create 8,000 new jobs without producing a single unit of housing.

The SFPUC’s Water Supply Assessment for the Flower Mart Project makes it clear that the water we conserve will be needed to enable this and other major development projects. The document states, “The ability to meet the demand of the retail customers is in large part due to development of 10 mgd [million gallons per day] of local [water] supplies, including conservation, groundwater, and recycled water.”

In other words, we are being asked to conserve water, drink groundwater and support recycled water to facilitate more commercial development.

The way the SFPUC manages our water supply is clearly out of sync with the environmental values of its constituents. 97 percent favored protection of San Francisco Bay, and 92 percent supported restoration of the Tuolumne River.

One would think we could just elect SFPUC Commissioners who are more responsive to their constituents. However, unlike every other major water agency in the Bay Area, the SFPUC Commissioners are appointed by the Mayor, so there’s little public input.

When asked if they would favor changing the way the SFPUC Commissioners are appointed, more than twice as many people favored making them elected positions.


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What a Week!

It’s been a busy week for our work on the Bay Delta Plan, but before we get into the details, please note that there are two important meetings next Tuesday where the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan will be discussed. If you can attend either meeting, please send a note to peter@tuolumne.org.

  • August 28, 1:30pm — SFPUC meeting at SF City Hall, Room 400. Agenda available here.
  • August 28, 6:00pm — Santa Clara Valley Water District meeting at 5750 Almaden Expressway, San Jose. Agenda available here.

This week’s Bay Delta Plan progress:

On Monday, people opposed to the Bay Delta Plan rallied on the north steps of the State Capitol Building while environmental organizations, fishing groups and tribes assembled around the corner on the west steps for a press conference. That evening, after hearing from both sides of the debate, the Palo Alto City Council voted unanimously (9-0) to support the Bay Delta Plan. You can read about it here.

On Tuesday and Wednesday the State Water Board held a much-anticipated hearing on the Bay Delta Plan. We were notified in advance that a decision would be postponed to a future date to give the Natural Resources Agency more time to negotiate a voluntary settlement. We are not optimistic this will result in any breakthroughs, but there is always hope. The State Water Board is expected to take up the issue again on November 7.

The Los Angeles Times published an excellent editorial — Letting California’s rivers run isn’t a water ‘grab’

KQED published a comprehensive article — San Francisco is Fighting California’s Plan to Save Salmon. Wait. What?

We’re making great progress, and the fight continues next Tuesday. It would be great if you could join us!


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We Can Have a Vibrant Economy AND Healthier Ecosystems

The State Water Resources Control Board is in the process of updating the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan as required by the Clean Water Act. The State aims to achieve the co-equal goals of ecosystem restoration and ensuring a reliable water supply. Phase 1 of the Plan focuses on the San Joaquin River and its three main tributaries –the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced Rivers –and southern Delta salinity standards.

The Bay Delta Plan calls for requiring a percentage of unimpaired flow –what would occur in the absence of dams and diversions –to flow down the three main tributaries and into the San Joaquin River between February and June. The current recommendation is 40% of unimpaired flow, with flexibility to adjust it between 30% and 50%, depending on whether biological and environmental goals are met.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) manages the Hetch Hetchy Water System, which provides water to 2.7 million people in San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda Counties. The SFPUC has opposed the revised Bay Delta Plan, claiming it would severely impact the Bay Area economy. This is not the case.

Could the SFPUC run out of water?

The Tuolumne River Trust (TRT) has modeled what would happen if the six-year drought-of-record (1987-92) were to reoccur and the revised Bay Delta Plan were in effect. Even assuming water demand rebounded to pre-drought levels, the SFPUC could manage the drought with water left over in storage. This means that if the last 100 years of precipitation repeated, the SFPUC would not run out of water.

TRT 6-Year Drought Model

(223 mgd baseline, 40% unimpaired flow Feb-June)

TRT 6-Year Drought Model[1]

Note that the model assumes there would be no rationing in years 1 and 2 of the drought (since we wouldn’t know we were in a drought yet), rationing would be 10% in years 3 and 4, and 20% in years 5 and 6, for an average of only 10% rationing.

Why is the SFPUC concerned?

The SFPUC has not challenged TRT’s drought model, and in fact, its own modeling has accepted the outcome. However, the SFPUC is planning for what it calls a “Design Drought” –an 8.5-year drought that arbitrarily combines the drought-of-record (1987-92) with the driest two-year period on record (1976-77).

Regardless of how much water the SFPUC has in storage, it considers every year to be the beginning, or middle, of its Design Drought. The SFPUC states:

Our Level of Service objective for water supply is to survive the drought planning scenario (1987-92 followed by 1976-77) with no more than 20% rationing from a total system demand of 265 MGD [million gallons per day]…We need to plan for each year as if it is the beginning of our drought planning scenario.[2]

In anticipation of the Design Drought, the SFPUC claims that under the Bay Delta Plan’s 40% unimpaired flow, with demand at 223 MGD, rationing would have to begin at 39% for the first three years, and then increase to 49% for the next three years. This would leave 576,000 acre-feet in storage at the end of the six-year drought –enough to last more than two years. If history repeated, all of its reservoirs would refill after the drought. The excessive rationing would have been unnecessary.

When lobbying others, the SFPUC has misled influential people and groups by not explaining its extremely conservative 8.5-year Design Drought, nor that it’s figures are based on 2040 demand projections aimed at accommodating aggressive development as forecast by Plan Bay Area, leaving the impression that the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan would have a much more severe impact than under a realistic scenario.

What if we did experience a longer drought?

In a worst-case scenario, the SFPUC could purchase water from an agricultural irrigation district for about the same amount as it charges its customers. According to a recent study by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments:

Additionally, while all agriculture contributes significant value to the regional economy, specialty crops generated around $2,700 per acre annually –more than three times the value per acre than non-specialty crops.[3]

It takes about 3.5 acre-feet of water to produce an acre of crops, so according to the figure above, one acre-foot of water would generate $771 in income. Then there’s the “multiplier effect”–revenue generated through processing and distributing agricultural products.

Specialty Crop Cluster Direct Output Value

Specialty Crop Cluster Direct Output Value[4]

Using the above percentages for the multiplier effect, one acre-foot of water used to grow specialty crops generates $2,659. Lower value crops generate considerably less. The SFPUC currently charges its wholesale customers about $2,200 per acre-foot.

In other words, the SFPUC could purchase water from an agricultural irrigation district at a price that could allow farmers, processors and distributors to make as much money as if crops were being produced, but they wouldn’t have to do any work.

What are the SFPUC’s water rights on the Tuolumne?

The Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts, which share the Tuolumne with the SFPUC, have senior water rights on the River dating back to 1887. As the junior water rights holder, the SFPUC is required to let the first 2,400 cubic feet per second (cfs) (imagine 2,400 basketballs full of water) flow past its dams to satisfy the Irrigation Districts’water rights. Between mid-April and mid-June, the Irrigation Districts are entitled to the first 4,000 cfs.

Tuolumne River Water Entitlements

The SFPUC’s water rights are poor in dry years, but exceptional in normal and wet years. According to the Substitute Environmental Document (SED) for Phase 1 of the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan:

The 1922-2003 average calculated volume of water potentially available to CCSF [City and County of San Francisco] under the Raker Act was about 750 TAF/y [thousand acre-feet per year].[5]

The SED explains the SFPUC’s water demand as follows:

According to a SFPUC planning document, an average of 244 TAF/yis diverted from the Tuolumne River…based on data from 1989-2005.[6]

In other words, in an average year the SFPUC has the right to capture three times as much water from the Tuolumne as it uses. This allows storage to replenish quickly after a drought. At the height of the recent drought, the SFPUC had enough water in storage to last three years. 2016 was an average water year, and the SFPUC was able to rebuild its storage to 80%. Then came 2017 –the second wettest year on record in the Tuolumne River watershed –and the SFPUC had the right to capture enough water to last 12 years. Obviously, they didn’t have enough storage capacity to capture even a fraction of that water, so most of it had to be “dumped”into the River to prevent future flooding downstream.

SFPUC Tuolumne Storage

SFPUC Tuolumne Storage Graph[7]

You’ll note that the largest block of water in the above graph is labeled “Water Bank.”This is water the SFPUC can “pre-pay”to the Irrigation Districts when its reservoirs are full and it still has the right to capture more water. The SFPUC helped pay for the construction of Don Pedro Reservoir, which is owned and operated by the Irrigation Districts and is downstream of the SFPUC’s reservoirs, in exchange for the ability to “bank”water there. The SFPUC cannot directly access this water, but the set-up allows it to capture water at Hetch Hetchy that it otherwise wouldn’t be entitled to, and subtract an equal amount from its water bank. The water bank got low during the drought, but the SFPUC’s reservoirs remained close to full.

Knowing that its water supply depends on storing water during normal and wet years for future use during a string of dry years, the SFPUC has invested in storage. When full, the SFPUC’s reservoirs and water bank can store enough water to last six years.

SFPUC Storage Capacity

SFPUC Storage Capacity

To increase water supply even further, conservation groups have proposed that the SFPUC partner with the Irrigation Districts to capture excess water in very wet years and use it to recharge groundwater in the San Joaquin Valley for future agricultural use during dry years. Like the Don Pedro water bank, the SFPUC would not have access to this water, but could benefit from a groundwater water bank.

How does the SFPUC’s policy of hoarding water harm the environment?

During the recent drought, the SFPUC released only as much water from its reservoirs into the Tuolumne River as was required by a 1995 flow schedule. This schedule is based on baseflows –a minimum amount of water that must remain in the River, depending on water-year type (how wet) and the time of year. While people were inconvenienced by the drought, fish and wildlife experienced extreme conditions for five years.

In 2017, all of the water we conserved during the drought had to be “dumped,”providing one excessively good year for the environment at the expense of five terrible years. Had the Bay Delta Plan been in effect, the Tuolumne River would have benefitted, and the SFPUC still would have been able to replenish all of its reservoirs and much more.

 

Prepared by Tuolumne River Trust, June 21, 2018.

[1]Storage measured in thousands of acre-feet (TAF). One acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons.

[2]SFPUC Board meeting, January 10, 2017

[3]“Food System Multipliers for Specialty Foods,”Sacramento Area Council of Governments, July 25, 2016.

[4]Ibid.

[5]750,000 acre-feet equals 670 million gallons per day.

[6]244,000 acre-feet equals 218 million gallons per day.

[7]This graph, courtesy of the SFPUC, does not include Bay Area storage.


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State Water Board plan would help restore the Tuolumne

As published in the SFChronicle on June 14, 2018

To improve the quality of our water and the health of our rivers and the San Francisco Bay-Delta, the State Water Resources Control Board is updating the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan as required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The board is considering requiring higher in-stream flows between February and June, which are critical months for baby salmon growth and migration. For the Tuolumne River, this would increase flows from an anemic 21 percent to a modest 40 percent of unimpaired flow.

During the recent drought, Bay Area residents and businesses stepped up to the challenge of conserving water and dramatically reduced their water use. In the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System service area, water use declined by 30 percent between 2006 and 2016. But the Tuolumne River, which fills Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, rarely saw any of the water we saved, and it shows. The river is much lower and warmer than it should be, and salmon populations are barely surviving. Where well more than 100,000 salmon used to spawn, the salmon population has plummeted to the low thousands or even hundreds.

Some 2.7 million people in San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda counties get most of their water from the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System, which is managed by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The commission opposes the state board’s proposal to keep more water flowing in the Tuolumne River for three reasons:

Its policy and practice focus on human consumption, not environment or water quality. A 1995 agreement with the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts — the senior water rights holders on the Tuolumne — that committed the commission to support the districts’ political position on in-stream flow requirements for fish and wildlife, regardless of what the best available science tells us. Irrigation districts are notorious for opposing environmental safeguards, yet the commission gave up its right to think and act in accordance with the environmental values of its constituents.

It wants to maximize stored water in case of drought. This policy of hoarding compromises the future of salmon and the entire ecosystem they support. While it has been demonstrated that the commission could manage a repeat of the drought years even with the revised Bay Delta Plan in effect, it is planning for an extreme scenario that arbitrarily combines the two worst droughts from the latter part of the last century. In a worst-case scenario, the agency could purchase water from an agricultural water district for less than it currently charges its customers.

The Bay Area is projected to grow in the coming years. Plan Bay Area, a road map for growth prepared by Bay Area Metro, forecasts the addition of 1.3 million jobs between 2010 and 2040, attracting 2 million more people to the region. Between 2010 and 2015, half of those jobs were already added, far outpacing the creation of new housing. As a result, the housing crisis and traffic gridlock have worsened, while our environment continues to suffer.

During the recent drought, the Public Utilities Commission released only as much water from its dams as was required by a 20-year-old flow schedule. The rest was impounded for future use. At the height of the drought, the agency had enough water in storage to last three years.

Then came 2017 — the second-wettest year on record — and the dam operators on the Tuolumne had to dump massive amounts of water to prevent future flooding. The river flowed at capacity from early January through May, and stream flows remained high throughout the summer. Had more water been released into the river during the drought, fish and wildlife would have benefited, and the agency still would have had enough water to refill all of its reservoirs twice over.

Without safeguards in place to require more water to flow down our rivers, there’s no assurance the water we conserve will benefit aquatic ecosystems. The Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan is our best hope to restore a balance between human needs and those of the natural environment that makes our region so special.


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San Francisco’s water conservation can flow to salmon

As published in the San Francisco Examiner on May 9, 2018

Article by Robyn Purchia

California’s commercial salmon season opened last week, but feasting on the fatty fish is still an upstream battle for many San Franciscans.

Already-low populations of salmon were further decimated by the drought in 2015. This means smaller catches for local fishermen and higher prices this season for The City’s consumers.

“The fishery we see today is based on what happened three years ago,” explained Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “Too much water got taken out of the rivers for too long, and the situation was exacerbated by drought. Right now, salmon habitats are miserable.”

Conditions could improve. This summer, the state may finalize its proposal to increase water flow in the San Joaquin River’s tributaries: the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. According to the state, the recommended flow will improve conditions for salmon and other wildlife and still provide enough drinking and irrigation water.

But the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission disagrees. Approximately 85 percent of The City’s supply comes from the Hetch Hetchy watershed, which collects water from the Tuolumne River. The SFPUC is concerned the state’s proposal would put The City in a precarious position.

While the SFPUC’s concern is understandable, it may also be unwarranted. Regional demand for water has declined remarkably over the past 10 years. Protecting salmon isn’t perilous for San Franciscans, even in times of drought. Our conservation efforts should benefit California’s rivers and the wildlife they support.

Preston Falls on the Tuolumne River. 

“I think there’s a win-win,” Peter Drekmeier of the Tuolumne River Trust told me. “The SFPUC can protect and restore the Tuolumne and San Francisco Bay-River Delta region, as well as make sure we have an appropriate water supply.”

Drekmeier pointed to the SFPUC’s own data for evidence. In 2008, the SFPUC delivered a total of 257 million gallons per day. In 2017, deliveries dropped to 180 million gallons per day. That’s a major reduction as the region’s population grew and economy expanded.

San Franciscans deserve a hearty pat on the back for our conservation work.

The Water System Improvement Program, a $4.8 billion program to upgrade the SFPUC’s regional and local water systems, has also enhanced the agency’s ability to provide water in an environmentally sustainable manner. The SFPUC has diversified its supply with groundwater and plans to use recycled water for irrigation and lake-filling soon.

Heat, dry spells and climate change will continue to challenge our growing population. The California drought, which lasted from 1987 to 1992, was a painful lesson for the SFPUC. Officials had not planned for a drought worse than any experienced to that date. The lack of foresight created a situation where San Franciscans were forced to ration their water use.

Fortunately, better planning saved city residents from mandatory rationing during the latest drought. At the height of the dry spell in 2015, the agency had enough water supply to last three years. But that doesn’t mean the SFPUC is ready to give up the resource.

(Source: San Francisco Public Utilities Commission)

“One thing we can’t do is run out of water,” Steven Ritchie with the SFPUC told me. “We have to be appropriately conservative.”

In comments to the state, the SFPUC urged regulators to let water users and other stakeholders negotiate their own solution to California’s water woes. Currently, California is sponsoring settlement discussions among stakeholders. The discussions have lasted more than a year.

“Water users have had decades to try to solve these problems,” Doug Obegi with the environmental nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) told me. “Without the state stepping in and determining what kind of flow is needed to restore the rivers’ health, stakeholders will talk themselves in circles.”

Environmental organizations, like NRDC and the Tuolumne River Trust, assert the Bay Area can get by with less water. The Trust analyzed the impact of the 1987-1992 drought using current demand and the state’s proposed flow increase. Assuming no rationing the first two years, 10 percent rationing in years three and four and 20 percent rationing in years five and six, the organization determined the SFPUC would have enough water to meet demand.

The state’s flow proposal also includes an emergency provision to protect water users during another historic drought.

“There’s no way the state would allow the Bay Area to go dry,” Drekmeier assured me.

As the state prepares to finalize its proposal this summer, San Franciscans should envision the future we want. If we want to see affordable, local salmon on the menu and support the fishermen who make that possible, The City shouldn’t oppose efforts to restore habitat in California’s rivers. San Franciscans can contact the commission to voice support for healthy rivers and the state’s proposal.

If we don’t need the water, the SFPUC shouldn’t take it.

 

For more by Robyn Purchia visit the SF Examiner’s Green Space


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