KQED Forum Discussion

A plan to restore rivers and salmon habitat is pitting environmentalists against the city of San Francisco. Originating in the Sierra Nevada snowpack, the rivers are diverted to provide water to farms and cities across California. Now, the State Water Resources Control Board has proposed its Bay Delta Plan, which would reinstate 40 percent of the flow to rivers and help the struggling salmon. Critics of the Bay Delta Plan — including the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission — say it would lead to mandatory water restrictions and raise the cost of water. Meanwhile, some farmers in the Central Valley say the plan will cost jobs. Listen in as TRT Policy Director Peter Drekmeier discusses this latest chapter in California’s water wars with Michael Carlin of the SFPUC, KQED staff, and listeners.

Guests:

Lauren Sommer, science and environment reporter, KQED

Peter Drekmeier, policy director, Tuolumne River Trust

Michael Carlin, deputy general manager, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission


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Plan to revive rivers pits SF against California

Article by Kurtis Alexander

As published in the San Francisco Chronicle on Oct. 14, 2018

The rivers that once poured from the Sierra Nevada, thick with snowmelt and salmon, now languish amid relentless pumping, sometimes shriveling to a trickle and sparking a crisis for fish, wildlife and the people who rely on a healthy California delta.

A state plan to improve these flows and avert disaster, however, has been mired in conflict and delays. And critical opposition is coming from an unexpected place: progressive San Francisco. City water officials worry that the far-reaching effort to revive hundreds of miles of waterways will mean giving up too much of their precious mountain supplies.

Now, as the city water department works to defeat the state plan — pitting itself against environmental groups in an unlikely alliance with thirsty Central Valley farmers, as well as their backers in the Trump administration — some at City Hall have begun wondering if San Francisco is on the right side of California’s latest water war.

In a recent sign of an emerging divide, Supervisor Aaron Peskin is threatening to introduce a resolution that challenges the position of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and declares the city officially in support of the state’s river restoration.

“I’m concerned that the PUC is playing footsie with the Trump administration at the detriment of the environment,” Peskin told The Chronicle. “This is a city that prides itself on its environmental record, and we should be part of the solution.” 

Whether Peskin’s measure could force the largely independent Public Utilities Commission to change course is unclear. So is the resolution’s chance of winning approval from the full Board of Supervisors.

Peskin’s colleagues and those at the water agency remain concerned that forfeiting water, under the state plan, would prompt mandatory water cuts and drive up water rates as the city is compelled to seek out new, pricey supplies, such as desalination.

But what is clear is that, even without a successful resolution, the city’s rift is providing momentum for environmentalists advocating for the rivers. By putting the Public Utilities Commission in the spotlight, they hope to see more of a backlash, and in doing so weaken the hand of San Francisco, which they view as a major hurdle to the state’s effort to rescue the river system.

“The SFPUC is not representing the values of its residents,” said Peter Drekmeier, policy director of the Tuolumne River Trust. “We expect the Central Valley irrigation districts to oppose the plan. But San Francisco?”

“And, yes, (the city has) a lot of influence over this,” he said.

At issue is how much water should flow from the Sierra Nevada’s many rivers to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a vital ecological and water-supply hub where the state’s two largest waterways converge. As it stands, most of the rivers feeding the delta run at only a fraction of their natural flow because of the heavy draws by cities and farms.

The result has been declining water quality and lost wildlife habitat. The chinook salmon population is collapsing, a blow that has reverberated up the food chain to eagles, orcas and beyond. The delta estuary is menaced with invasive weeds and pollution.

Under the plan, the State Water Resources Control Board is proposing that no more than 60 percent of the flows of the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, on average, be taken from the channels during certain months in the winter and spring. The average flow now is less than 30 percent. A similar proposal is forthcoming for the Sacramento River. 

State officials tout their effort, formally known as the Bay Delta Plan, as a compromise that will save the delta and the rivers while still leaving the bulk of the water for human consumption.

San Francisco and some of the state’s largest irrigation districts, however, contend they won’t get enough water to support their needs.

The Tuolumne River, the source of San Francisco’s famously pure Hetch Hetchy supply, averages just 21 percent of its historic flow at peak runoff. Meeting the state’s target would mean drawing 7 to 23 percent less water from the Tuolumne and other rivers in the San  Joaquin River watershed, according to state estimates.

Officials at the Public Utilities Commission acknowledge that in wet years there wouldn’t be any supply problems. But when it gets dry, they say, residents and businesses would invariably face water rationing — as much as a 40 percent reduction during a severe drought. Over the long run, as new water sources are developed, water rates could increase, they say, up to 17 percent over 15 years.

Much of the hardship would extend to the roughly two dozen Bay Area communities that purchase water from the city.

Michael Carlin, deputy general manager for the Public Utilities Commission, said the city agency is not ignoring the health of the river. The utility invests millions on restoring the Tuolumne’s habitat. But Carlin said he has to look at more than just fish.

“I’m responsible for clean drinking water and protecting the environment, and there’s a cost to doing both,” he said. “It’s a balance sometimes. People don’t always see that balance. But it’s there.”

Officials at the Public Utilities Commission were not aware of any formal push by the Board of Supervisors to block their opposition to the state’s effort, saying only that they had been in conversation with board members about the matter.

“I don’t think we’re going to change course at this point,” Carlin said.

San Francisco has played an outsize role in the statewide debate over the Bay Delta Plan.

While water issues often split between agricultural and urban interests, the city’s resistance to the plan has created an unusually powerful bloc with the farming industry to take on the state.

“I’m totally amazed that the State Water Board has been able to stick to their guns,” said Heinrich Albert, a water committee co-chair at the San Francisco Bay chapter of the Sierra Club. Albert has fought for the state’s initiative but acknowledges the city’s power to derail it.

The city-farm alliance has recently won the backing of the Trump administration. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke this summer criticized the Bay Delta Plan as being unfair to water users while President Trump has taken to Twitter to call the state “foolish” for not wanting to pump more water from rivers.

The latest show of support from Washington came as a subtle, yet surprising move by the Fish and Wildlife Service. This month, the agency shied away from what had been widely construed as an embrace of the Bay Delta Plan’s proposed flow increases. In a letter submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on a separate but related issue of dams on the Tuolumne River, the agency said its strategy for protecting wildlife habitat could be accommodated with lower river flows.

A spokesman for Fish and Wildlife called the change in direction necessary “to balance the needs of people and nature.” But supporters of the restoration were quick to suspect that the shift was the result of pressure from above.

Talks between water users and the state, mediated by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt among others, have been ongoing. But so far they’ve produced no meeting of the minds. The State Water Board is scheduled to vote to approve the proposed targets for the San Joaquin River watershed next month. The decision has already been postponed once because of the disagreement.

Research by the state and independent scientists has shown that boosting water levels is the only way to salvage California’s river system. A technical report by the State Water Board has recommended maintaining at least 60 percent of the natural flow of the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, though the board is willing to accept 40 percent for the sake of compromise.

The city’s Public Utilities Commission, meanwhile, has put forth alternative research, backed by the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts, that suggests that the Tuolumne River can be restored without drastically cutting back on the amount of water taken out.

The study, performed by water agency scientists, calls for more habitat improvements, from planting trees along the river banks to enhancing gravel beds for fish to removing the invasive creatures that prey on salmon.

Critics have dismissed the city’s report as simply self-serving.

Supervisor Peskin said he hopes the Public Utilities Commission will eventually stand down, and he’s been speaking with agency officials to encourage them to do so. If they don’t, though, he believes he’s got a good shot at forcing their hand.

A resolution from the Board of Supervisors that proclaims the city in support of the Bay Delta Plan would not necessarily require the Public Utilities Commission to adopt the city’s position. The water agency operates independently of City Hall, with its own governing board, budget and staff.

However, the supervisors hold certain powers over the Public Utilities Commission. They must approve large infrastructure bonds and sign off on budgets, for example, and Peskin said he’d leverage that authority if the agency declines to cooperate.

“The bottom line is that if the Board of Supervisors were to set the policy of the city and county as having larger, unimpaired flows (in the river system), that would be a pretty significant move,” Peskin said. “It would have both political and legal implications.”

At least two of San Francisco’s 11 supervisors have expressed formal support for the Public Utilities Commission in letters to the state. But Peskin believes he could win enough votes from the others to pass a resolution.

Mayor London Breed, who would have veto power over the measure, declined to comment for this story.

The governing board of the Public Utilities Commission, which typically doesn’t get involved in the day-to-day affairs of the agency, like lobbying against the Bay Delta Plan, appears to be taking a greater interest in the issue. The board is nominated by the mayor and approved by the supervisors.

Board member Francesca Vietor told The Chronicle that she has reservations about her agency’s stand.

“As a San Francisco resident and a commissioner, I’m not willing to compromise the well-being of our fish, rivers and ecosystems,” she said. “I’m not convinced we can’t get to a better set of solutions.”

Commissioner Ike Kwon also expressed concern for the health of the rivers but appeared more confident in his agency’s ability to protect both wildlands and water supplies.

“In a sense we’re all environmentalists,” he said, “just to a different degree.” 

 

Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.

Email: kalexander@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @kurtisalexander


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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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If We’re Smart, We Can Find Enough Water for All of Us

As published in the Modesto Bee on August 14, 2018

The Modesto Bee has expressed a strong negative opinion of the State Water Resources Control Board’s proposal to require additional water to be left in the Tuolumne River and other San Joaquin tributaries to improve water quality and the environment.

Regrettably, what has received little attention in this debate are the opportunities for improving water management to meet the agricultural and environmental demands placed on these rivers.

A coalition of conservation groups has proposed that Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, working with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, establish a 90,000 acre-foot groundwater bank. Such a partnership has a precedent in the Tuolumne watershed, where San Francisco paid for just over 50 percent of the construction cost of Don Pedro Dam in exchange for the ability to bank up to 570,000 acre-feet in the reservoir.

A groundwater bank could be similarly financed and would be a much more efficient means of protecting groundwater supplies than the current aquifer recharge system, which relies heavily on inefficient flood irrigation. Recharge by flood irrigation requires over-application of water to agricultural fields. Flood irrigation requires heavy application of water even in dry years and it is unknown how much of the excess water applied actually is recoverable for later use. It also moves nitrates and other pollutants into groundwater, which creates many other problems.

It is a system we believe people on all sides could support.

Another promising tool for water efficiency has been tested in our own backyard. In 2012, the South San Joaquin Irrigation District implemented a cutting-edge project on 3,800 acres of irrigated district lands. In the SSJID, like in its sister districts to the south, water has been delivered through miles of gravity-fed canals, which are inefficient and difficult to manage. In this pilot project, the SSJID converted the canals to 19 miles of pressurized pipeline.

The project reduces water use by 30 percent, reduces energy use 30 percent and increases crop yield by up to 30 percent. The benefits are clear and should have growers throughout the region demanding that all distribution systems be converted. Assuming similar efficiencies could be achieved by TID and MID, this approach could produce about 300,000 acre-feet of conserved water on the Tuolumne alone.

This water would go a long way to meeting the needs of the river and animals that depend on it and provide benefits to farmers

Finally, Stanislaus County and the water districts have a responsibility to ensure the region doesn’t pump and divert water beyond its means. The unfettered drilling of new wells, particularly in the eastern foothills, has led to a proliferation of orchards on ground that historically had been grazing land. The annexation of new areas by Oakdale Irrigation District to plant more and more orchards and other permanent crops compounds the problem.

These newcomers to irrigated agriculture are adding stress to an over-tapped system and threatening those within the irrigation district boundaries who have been farming for generations. Our water supplies can take no additional demands, and this expansion of cropland must be checked.

While no single strategy will meet water demand, a combination of approaches will help us ensure a healthy agricultural economy, restored rivers and a healthier environment.

Instead of dismissing the water needs of the environment as unachievable, the water districts have an opportunity to lead us successfully into a new era of water management. This is a future that will support a more robust economy, a restored river system and a vibrant quality of life.


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