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City Hall flooded with complaints over SF’s new mixed drinking water

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(Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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Complaints are flooding City Hall as word spreads that San Francisco’s beloved Hetch Hetchy drinking water is being mixed with less pristine groundwater.

So many, in fact, that Supervisor Norman Yee was compelled to call Wednesday’s hearing to ask the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to address the myriad of concerns, from the safety of the water to the need for the change.

Four wells pulling up water 450 feet below in the West Basin Aquifer are in the testing phase and by summer to early fall, 1 million gallons daily of underground water will go into the system. The plan is to reach 4 million gallons daily by 2020, 15 percent of the water supply delivered to some 60 percent of the water users.

One well, located by Lake Merced, pumped water into the system over two days in April. The other wells will be tested in June and July.

During the two-hour hearing Wednesday, mothers worried about the impacts on their young children, some residents said they felt like guinea pigs and others referred to the added groundwater as contamination. Some are calling on The City to halt the effort altogether.

SFPUC officials assured residents that the mixture will have no noticeable taste differences and that the blend of treated groundwater with Hetch Hetchy water will still have drinking water contaminants at measurements well below the safe health standards set by the State Water Resources Control Board, Division of Drinking Water.

For example, the standard for nitrate is not to exceed 45 mg/L. The test of Hetch Hetchy water last year was 0.35 mg/L, and the projected calculation after 1 million gallons per day (mgd) of groundwater are added is projected to reach 1.45 mg/L.

The SFPUC is required by the state’s water board to initially conduct daily testing when mixing the water, which reduces to weekly and monthly over time.

The groundwater is chlorinated and treated with sodium hydroxide to alter the pH level. The water from the wells is pumped to the Sunset and Sutro reservoirs where it is mixed with the Hetch Hetchy water before being delivered to customers.

George Wooding, president of the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, argued that with no drought and no current shortage of water supply it’s not worth adding lower quality water. “We don’t want this water until it’s proven to be safer. We don’t want this water until we need it,” Wooding said.

Longtime San Francisco resident Christopher Bowman said that if voters were aware of the groundwater project in 2002 when they approved a billion-dollar bond for water system improvements, it never would have passed. About $66 million from the bond is the source of funding for the project.

The groundwater project is meant to diversify San Francisco’s water supply and provide alternative resources in cases of drought or emergencies.

Laura Tam, of the pro-development think-tank SPUR, praised the groundwater plan for creating a “more reliable and more sustainable water system.”

“Groundwater is not an unfamiliar water resource. Forty percent of Americans drink groundwater,” Tam said. “It is still incredibly safe. I’m fine with my kids drinking it. The testing is frequent.”

Dr. Tomas Aragon, the Health Department’s health officer said, “Based on what we know and the current science, the water would be safe.”

Steven Ritchie, SFPUC’s assistant general manager of water, said that many of the residents’ concerns are based on “limited information.”

“I was actually mildly shocked to hear that, ‘Oh my God, people will obviously turn to bottled water,’” Ritchie said. “I would be appalled if that were the outcome, that people felt that was actually safer because I don’t believe that it is.”

Ritchie added, “Diversifying our supply is the wave of the future.”

Yee vowed that the board’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee will hold a follow-up hearing.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen seemingly put the debate in perspective, and suggested the agency conduct a more robust education and outreach campaign to allay concerns.

“In a way, the PUC is a victim of its own branding success,” Ronen said. “We have been told for so long how lucky we are as residents to have the most pristine water source in the entire world, not just in California and the region.”

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