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Tap that tap: San Francisco should dig its new water supply

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To move forward in a more sustainable direction, San Franciscans should learn more about one of the few affordable resources in The City. (Courtesy photo)

More than 80 years ago, San Francisco faucets began pouring water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, 167 miles away. Gathered from the spring snowmelt flowing in Yosemite National Park, it’s likely the most pristine liquid to touch city streets. In fact, it’s so pure, it received federal and state filtration exemptions.

As struggles in Flint, Mich., indicate, San Francisco is fortunate to have such clean water flowing freely. That’s why some are upset over learning the groundwater collected from wells along The City’s westside will be added to our supply in about two weeks. A petition on Change.org implies our water will be polluted with hazardous nitrates. A Reddit user called the blend “the devil’s piss.”

It’s a shame to see these knee-jerk reactions. It isn’t time to buy petroleum-based plastic water bottles and costly filters. In fact, that’s never necessary in San Francisco. San Franciscans should learn more about one of the few affordable resources in this city, so we can move forward in a more sustainable direction.

Public drinking water is heavily regulated under federal, state and San Francisco law, and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission complies with these standards.

“You can throw any compound at us, and chances are, we’re testing for it,” agency spokesman Charles Sheehan told me.

I did. They test for a wide range of pesticides, including glyphosate found in Monsanto’s Round Up. Nothing has been detected.

In 2007, when the Recreation and Park Department first proposed artificial turf fields in the Sunset, the SFPUC asked them to line the fields and drain them to the sewer system. They struck the same deal with San Francisco State University. This stopped harmful toxins in the turf from contaminating the groundwater.

The SFPUC has found nitrates, a contaminant that can pose health problems, in wells. The state requires this water to be blended. This year, San Franciscans will only drink up to 3 percent groundwater. In four years, when blending reaches its maximum, San Franciscans will still drink at least 85 percent reservoir water.

“A blending management practice is completely acceptable,” Bob Devany, a hydrologist with more than 33 years in groundwater work assured me. “Where we run into problems is with cities that rely on 100 percent groundwater.”

Besides concerns about contaminants, groundwater raises sustainability issues. Overuse in the San Joaquin Valley has caused the ground to collapse by more than 40 feet. In some coastal communities, unchecked thirst for well water has drawn seawater into the aquifer. Saltwater intrusion causes expensive, long-term damage.

These issues are as relevant in San Francisco as they are throughout the state. The Millennium Tower’s developers blamed the building’s dramatic settlement on Transbay Joint Powers Authority’s excessive groundwater pumping. If the SFPUC doesn’t manage its pumping, San Francisco could lose its new water supply.

Thankfully, the SFPUC is worried about sinking land and saltwater, too.

“We use the groundwater as a long-term supply and we don’t want to jeopardize that,” Jeff Gilman, the agency’s groundwater project manager told me.

They installed devices in wells to keep a careful watch on the level of water and any signs of salt. While there’s no cause for concern now, if they see a change, the water provider will draw from other wells or curtail pumping completely.

San Franciscans talk up the benefits of healthy, local food. Why doesn’t the same apply to water? The City has a vigorously tested and closely monitored supply that doesn’t require a lot of energy and resources to transport. Plus, it keeps us secure if we lose our connection to Hetch Hetchy.

It’s good to push the SFPUC to remain vigilant and make data publicly available. But there’s no reason to waste money on bottled water right now when everything else in The City is so expensive. Tapping that tap is good for body, wallet and environment.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article reported The City began blending its groundwater last month. The blending will not begin for about two weeks, and the article has been updated.

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