SF’s water supply could use leadership, not litigation

Solutions needed to keep taps and salmon running

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California is dry. Bay Area counties have declared drought emergencies and imposed restrictions. State and federal officials are trucking baby salmon to the ocean.

But San Franciscans are still using their primary water source, the Tuolumne River, which feeds the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park. Last week, City Attorney Dennis Herrera — who Mayor London Breed recently tapped to head San Francisco’s water agency — filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s efforts to protect salmon and the overall health of the river.

“The state’s approach is excessive and unfairly targets San Francisco,” Herrera said.

Many disagree with the City Attorney’s statement, including environmental organizations, fishermen, supervisors and this columnist. Whether the lawsuit will impact Herrera’s future at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission remains to be seen. But one point is clear: San Francisco’s dependence on river water is neither sustainable nor resilient.

If San Francisco complied with the state’s conditions and took less water from the Tuolumne, it would benefit the environment and Bay Area fishermen. It also wouldn’t hurt San Franciscans. The City doesn’t need as much water from the river as it did historically. And other California counties and cities are increasing their resilience with robust water reuse systems.

Environmental and fishing groups had hoped recent leadership changes at the SFPUC would shift The City’s approach to the Tuolumne. But the lawsuit raises concerns about the agency’s direction. In response, a coalition is opposing Herrera’s nomination to become the next general manager, despite Herrera’s strong environmental record.

“San Francisco is not only hurting salmon and the people who depend on salmon, including native people and fishermen, but they’re also hurting other people’s drinking water,” Regina Chichizola of Save California’s Salmon, a coalition member, told me.

The SFPUC’s commissioners will have to decide whether to adopt Mayor Breed’s choice to head the agency or continue their search. The previous general manager, Harlan Kelly, resigned last November and is facing federal corruption charges. It’s unclear when commissioners will choose a successor.

“We are hoping it can be soon,” Commission President Sophie Maxwell told me. “This is a process and it has integrity.”

Other city leaders, including Mayor Breed, should also consider whether the lawsuit is a proper representation of San Francisco. In 2018, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution supporting the state’s conditions. And last week, Supervisor Aaron Peskin introduced a resolution urging the SFPUC to pause litigation and heed experts’ input.

While Supervisor Rafael Mandelman has joined as co-sponsor, the regional Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency has voiced opposition.

“The SFPUC doesn’t set San Francisco policy, the Board of Supervisors does,” Supervisor Peskin told me. “It should be San Francisco’s policy that the SFPUC and the City Attorney don’t fight protections for the Tuolumne River and our treasured Bay Estuary.”

It should also be The City’s policy to expand alternatives. We are in a drought. We need a local supply that won’t hurt the environment. And we are letting water flow down the drain instead of reusing it in graywater systems.

Right now, The City requires large development projects of 250,000 square feet or more to use onsite water reuse. A new ordinance by Supervisor Mandelman would expand the program for large buildings. But owners of small properties can only get a rebate up to $225 after jumping through hoops. While these owners can also receive a discount and free training to install a “laundry to landscape” system, this isn’t enough to encourage widespread change.

San Francisco should increase incentives for graywater systems and advance efforts to develop a stronger local supply. As the city attorney seems to understand, this critical work is already underway.

“We share the goal of protecting the environment,” his spokesperson John Coté told me. “We are aggressively diversifying our water sources, including requiring recycled water systems in new construction, developing groundwater sources, and building a recycled water treatment facility on The City’s west side to save up to 2 million gallons of drinking water per day on average.”

Instead of litigating, The City should show its environmental leadership by expanding alternative water resources. It’s possible to keep our taps and our salmon running, even during droughts.

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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