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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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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Bay Delta Plan Update: Comment on Final SED

On July 6, 2018, the State Water Board released a final proposal to amend the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan (Proposed Final Amendments) and a Final Substitute Environmental Document (SED) for the Lower San Joaquin River and Southern Delta. To review these documents visit the State Water Board’s website. Comments are due before 12pm Noon on July 27, 2018. See instructions for submitting comments below (scroll down for talking points):

  • Email Jeanine Townsend, Clerk to the Board, by email at LSJR-SD-Comments@waterboards.ca.gov (please note that the email capacity is less than 50 megabytes total). Please title the subject line: “Comment Letter – Revisions to Proposed Bay-Delta Plan Amendments.” Electronic submission by email in pdf text format is preferred.
  • Attend the State Water Board meeting and give oral public comments on Tuesday, August 21, 2018, 9:30 a.m. and/or Wednesday, August 22, 2018, 9:30 a.m. at:

    Joe Serna Jr. CalEPA Headquarters Building
    Coastal Hearing Room
    1001 I Street, Second Floor
    Sacramento, CA 95814

For more information, please see the full Notice of Public Meeting.

Talking Points for Submitting Comments

While the State Water Board encourages comments to focus on new information presented in the final Substitute Environmental Document (SED), you are welcome to touch on any issue(s) related to the Bay Delta Plan. An important part of our job is to ensure the Water Board bases its decision on the best available science, and does not succumb to pressure from water agencies and their supporters who they’ve riled up through misinformation.

Begin your letter by introducing yourself. Why is this issue important to you? Perhaps you enjoy boating, fishing, swimming, backpacking or bird-watching in California’s watersheds. Share any personal stories or observations you might have. The Water Board is interested in all beneficial uses of the State’s water.

Remind the Water Board that California Fish & Game Code 5937 requires, “The owner of any dam shall allow sufficient water at all times to pass through a fishway, or in the absence of a fishway, allow sufficient water to pass over, around or through the dam, to keep in good condition any fish that may be planted or exist below the dam.”

Remind them that their 2010 flow criteria report determined that 60% of unimpaired flow between February and June would be protective of native fish in the San Joaquin River basin, so the proposed 40% of unimpaired flow is already a significant compromise.

Let them know which Alternative you support. Alternative 1 is the “no project alternative,” and Alternative 2 is 20-30% of unimpaired flow, so these are out of the question.

  • Alternative 3 (their recommended proposal) would require 30-50% of unimpaired flow, starting at 40%.
  • Alternative 4 would require 50-60% of unimpaired flow, starting at 60%.

For additional facts and figures, click here.


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