Talks falter for San Francisco’s ‘insurance’ water from Tuolumne River

GSEC-Flickr (CC)Looking for resources: San Francico would have tapped backup water from the Tuolumne River under a proposal.

San Francisco’s bid to secure a backup supply of water from the Modesto Irrigation District is dead for now after negotiations between that entity and The City’s Public Utilities Commission officially broke down Tuesday night.

City negotiators hoped to pay about $1.5 million per year for an additional 2 million gallons per day from the Tuolumne River, to serve as a “dry-year” backup to San Francisco’s supply from the same river. But talks faltered due to environmental concerns over issues such as salmon runs, and the deal unraveled when both sides refused to budge over which party would have sole power to terminate the contract.

Steve Ritchie, assistant general manager for the SFPUC, said the agency will seek alternatives and remains open to any future talks with Modesto’s irrigation board. The failure to reach terms will not cause an immediate problem, but Ritchie said it’s imperative that San Francisco find a way to weather future droughts.

Ritchie alluded to last winter’s late snowfall and noted how The City flirted with significant mandatory water rationing in the early 1990s.

“We know there’s going to be a worse drought out there, it’s just a matter of when,” Ritchie said, adding that the SFPUC was willing to pay a premium for the water, which was ideal because no new infrastructure would have been necessary to add it into The City’s pipelines.

Tuesday’s unanimous decision by the irrigation district’s board of directors came as welcome news to river advocates, who insisted throughout the process that the plan would be a waste and that San Francisco ratepayers would bear the brunt of new costs even if the extra water were not used.

“San Francisco does not need more water,” Peter Drekmeier, a program director for the Tuolumne River Trust, told The San Francisco Examiner this month.

But Ritchie said that is not necessarily true.

“Last year was the third-driest year on record until the late snow,” he said, noting that droughts play out and intensify over multiple years. “This could be the first year of a drought — and this winter, we’ll know more about whether it’s a drought.”

Tom Van Groningen, president of the irrigation district’s board of directors, said his organization was seeking to generate revenue for crucial upgrades to its water system. But controversy arose when some argued that Modesto would be in greater need of water than San Francisco in the event of any drought.

“That was the bottom line,” Van Groningen said. “A good deal is not a good deal unless it’s a good deal for both parties.”

dschreiber@sfexaminer.com

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