Changes in leadership at SFPUC spark concern, hope for future water policy

Will agency’s new commissioner continue to support Big Ag?

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San Francisco may find itself in an awkward position if Representative Jim Costa, a Democrat from Fresno, becomes the first Californian to chair the powerful House Agriculture Committee since 1867. While Costa is on the greener side of the political aisle, he also represents Central Valley agricultural users whose unrealistic water demands have threatened resiliency and sustainability in the West.

“I have pressed the administration to increase our water allocations, secured federal funding for Valley water projects and fought the flawed federal regulations that limit the water flowing to our region,” Rep. Costa explains on his website. “Our work to secure our fair share is far from over, but we have made progress.”

Strangely, The City’s powerful utilities agency is supporting agricultural irrigation districts’ work. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) has joined them in resisting regulations designed to protect salmon by reducing diversions from the Tuolumne River, which feeds into the City’s Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite. The City’s resistance doesn’t reflect San Francisco’s values nor is it necessary. Water demand from the Tuolumne River has dropped thanks to conservation, upgrades to city systems and new local supplies.

Now, leadership at the SFPUC is changing — two commissioners recently left and Mayor London Breed has only filled one position. While there’s concern she is ignoring ciity policies regarding commission appointments, there is also cautious optimism. The new commissioners may help turn the tide away from impractical water use toward a more resilient and sustainable future.

“This is a big deal,” former-Commissioner Francesca Vietor, a senior advisor on the Environment at the San Francisco Foundation who held the environmental seat at the SFPUC for 12 years, told me. “My concern is that all the work we’ve done in the environmental space doesn’t get derailed or waylaid.”

As a commissioner, Vietor strongly advocated for science-based limitations on San Francisco’s water demands, as well as environmental justice. Her replacement was supposed to have similar expertise and background. Commissioners are required to meet minimum qualifications and reflect the diversity of San Francisco’s population, according to Proposition E and a City Charter Amendment passed by voters in 2008.

Instead, Mayor Breed’s nomination (and the Board of Supervisors’ rubber-stamped approval) has resulted in a lack of diversity and expertise. The commissioners are almost all white men. And Commissioner Ed Harrington, who filled Vietor’s environmental seat, doesn’t have the requisite background.

That said, Vietor and water advocates respect Harrington and believe his politics are in the right place. He was the SFPUC’s general manager and San Francisco’s city controller from 1992 to 2008. His knowledge of internal city workings and staff connections may help the cause.

“Harrington brings a wealth of experience to this role,” the Mayor’s Office explained when I asked about Commissioner Harrington’s nomination to the environmental seat. “His experience and expertise will be a valuable resource for the Commission and the SFPUC.”

It’s curious Breed didn’t nominate him for the finance seat, which was also vacant. But her decision to move Commissioner Tim Paulson into the position, leaves the at-large seat open and the possibility the mayor will fill it with someone who reflects San Francisco’s diversity and understands water issues. Mayor Breed should seize the opportunity to reexamine her 2018 veto of a Board of Supervisors resolution that would have recognized state-imposed water limitations from the Tuolumne River.

This is also an opportunity for Harrington to put the SFPUC’s water policies on a better course. He is already planning a Nov. 30 workshop to present the best available science on the SFPUC’s water needs.

“Ed is a quick study, and he’ll get up to date,” Vietor assured me. “We need to do something for those fish.”

It’s not just the salmon that needs help. To protect a sustainable supply, The City, and the western United States, must be more practical with water. San Franciscans should demand that the SFPUC stop catering to the Central Valley’s unfair water demands. And our Representative Nancy Pelosi should ensure Rep. Costa doesn’t only fight for Big Ag’s short-term profits when she considers supporting his appointment.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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