Categories: Op-Ed

Prioritizing San Francisco’s water supply

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.

Peter Drekmeier is policy director for the Tuolumne River Trust.

Peter Drekmeier
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Peter Drekmeier

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