In the minds of many San Franciscans, The City’s tap water is indelibly linked to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. But recently, when the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission announced plans to drill new wells on the west side of The City, officials concluded that they might have oversold the Hetch Hetchy brand.
“One of the things we’ve heard from people on the west side is, ‘You’re going to make us drink groundwater, instead of that pristine Hetch Hetchy water? You’re discriminating against us!’” recalled Steve Ritchie, an assistant general manager.
Ritchie was quick to point out that the groundwater would make up no more than 10 percent of customers’ drinking water. It might even taste better, he said, because of the minerals in underground aquifers.
“We have an important task ahead of us to get people to accept these things,” Ritchie said.
The public relations problem is partly of the commission’s making. Around The City, Muni buses bear SFPUC posters urging riders to give up bottled water in favor of “delicious … Hetch Hetchy tap water.” The commission gives away free stainless steel bottles with its Hetch Hetchy logo on the side, and employees sing the praises of their tap water on social media sites.
For proponents of a ballot measure that would require San Francisco to study the practicality of draining the brand-name reservoir that sits in Yosemite National Park, the commission’s loyalty to its century-old water system is a daunting obstacle.
“I really respect how every one of them brings to the table this pride and ownership in the system,” said Mike Marshall, executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy, the group backing the measure. “Public employees get a bad rap, but these people really believe in what they do — blindly, I would argue.”
Paul Mazza, the commission’s manager of program development coordination, did not deny that his colleagues were personally invested.
“There’s a tremendous sense of pride,” he said. “You start knocking their water system and they get really defensive.”
The commission also is proud of its Water System Improvement Program, funded by $4.6 billion in bonds approved by voters in 2002. The projects include replacing or improving local dams, upgrading the treatment plants that filter locally sourced water, seismic retrofitting of infrastructure, and new pipelines from the Tuolumne River, including a 5-mile tunnel under San Francisco Bay.
While the ambitious agenda centers on improving the Hetch Hetchy system, the commission also is tapping local water sources. A project slated to begin in 2014 will eventually provide 4 million gallons a day in local groundwater. Another would produce up to 4 million gallons a day in recycled water to irrigate Golden Gate Park and nearby golf courses. A scheme to irrigate Harding Park and Fleming golf courses with recycled water will be in place this summer.
“We’re working hard on all this stuff,” said Ritchie, who oversees these projects. “But you’ve got to have a backup system. If it didn’t rain for five years in San Francisco, you’d better be ready to deal with that.”
Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, praised San Francisco for finally getting on board with what he said was a statewide movement to diversify water supplies.
“They frankly got started late,” he said. “Ten years ago, you would have said, they’re so far behind, how can they ever catch up?”
But like most people who work in California’s water industry, Quinn cautioned that it was important to acknowledge that California is and always will be an arid state.
“The fact is, we are a desert economy,” Quinn said. “No parts of California are prepared to give up their imported supply.”
Despite its many charms, California was never meant to support a population of more than 37 million thirsty humans. If San Francisco voters decide to drain the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, that stark fact may be the biggest challenge of all.
Advocates of draining Hetch Hetchy often point out that the system of pipelines ferrying water from Yosemite National Park to the Bay Area crosses three major fault lines. That vulnerability, they argue, is a reason to diversify San Francisco’s water supply and to rely more on local sources.
Officials with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission say they are well aware of the potential for such a disaster, and many of the projects funded by the $4.6 billion Water System Improvement Program bond will increase seismic reliability.
“I feel extremely proud and confident in the program we are putting into place,” said Julie Labonte, director of the program. “Engineeringwise, we are going to be better prepared for an earthquake than anywhere else in the United States.”
The commission is operating according to the U.S. Geological Survey estimate that there is a 63 percent probability of a quake measuring at least 6.7-magnitude hitting the Bay Area in the next 30 years. When the water project is complete, it is designed to withstand a once-in-a-millennium event, with water restored within 24 hours after a major quake and the system back at full capacity after a month.
Pipelines are being redesigned to move when faults shift, and dams have been rebuilt. Izzat Idriss, a retired UC Davis geotechnical engineer who consulted on the project, said San Franciscans should feel confident once the project is complete.
“Provided they get it done in time,” he added.