Wildfires underline need to diversify California’s water supply


Fast burning fires, aided by strong, east winds and low humidity, devastated the Butte County community of Paradise over the last week and sent hazardous smoke over the San Francisco Bay area. It’s a tragedy that’s becoming too frequent. Climate change is scorching California.

It’s critical for water agencies to adapt to this hotter and drier future. Throughout the state, municipalities are diversifying their supplies by recycling wastewater into drinkable water.

But San Francisco, a hub of technology and progressivism, still primarily relies on a system developed almost 100 years ago. Tuolumne River water is captured in the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and piped approximately 167 miles to our taps. It’s a system vulnerable to earthquakes and climate change. It’s also contributing to the decimation of salmon populations and endangering ecosystems.

The State Water Board has proposed increasing water in the Tuolumne River to 40 percent of natural flows between February and June to boost salmon populations. Even though scientists have found that maintaining an unimpaired flow of 60 percent is necessary to salmon survival, the state’s proposal at least strikes a compromise between the water needs of fish and humans.

But the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission staff continues to oppose the plan arguing it puts a critical resource of 2.7 million Bay Area residents at risk.

The SFPUC is defining “critical resource” too narrowly. Water doesn’t have to come from Hetch Hetchy to be drinkable. Instead of squabbling over a vulnerable and old-fashioned system, the SFPUC should focus on modernizing our supply. If the State Water Board approves its proposal in December, it could incentivize the SFPUC to diversify faster.

“San Francisco inherited a diamond of a water supply system with Hetch Hetchy,” John McManus, president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, told me. “Although it’s been an upside, it’s also led to tunnel vision when it comes to expanding options in the case of drought. Look around and see what other water districts are doing.”

The Orange County Water District is one example. While the area historically benefited from Santa Ana River flows and groundwater supplies, population growth, droughts and the need for a sustainable, local supply inspired the District to modernize. In the 1970s, it began purifying wastewater to drinking water. In 2018, the District recycled over 100 million gallons in 24 hours – a world record.

Orange County is not alone. San Diego is pursuing the first advanced purified recycled-water-to-reservoir operation in California. If approved by the state, the new approach could diversify the city’s supply, and reduce the need to import water from hundreds of miles away. .

The SFPUC is also pursuing recycled water for drinking purposes, but on a smaller scale. In the 1990s, the City began installing separate plumbing, and, after over 10 years of planning, broke ground on Westside Enhanced Water Recycling Project this year. When the plant is completed, it could pump around 2 million gallons to irrigate Golden Gate Park.

The agency is exploring partnerships with the Alameda County Water District and Silicon Valley Clean Water for additional recycled water projects, according to Steve Ritchie at the SFPUC. He also highlighted San Francisco’s other programs to diversify the water supply, such as mandated onsite water reuse systems in new, large developments.

“It reduces the amount we have to supply for drinking water in the future,” Ritchie told me.

“There have been good intentions for 25 years and still there is no recycled water on the east side of San Francisco,” Peter Drekmeier, policy director with Tuolumne River Trust, told me. “Certainly, action from the State Water Board would encourage a much faster approval of alternative supplies.”

The SFPUC is working to alleviate the burden on Hetch Hetchy, but it could much more. If the state approves the proposal, it could encourage the agency to work faster.

The State Water Board was set to vote on the proposal last Wednesday, but members delayed action until December at the request of Governor Jerry Brown and Governor-elect Gavin Newsom. The leaders wanted to give state agencies, water districts and other stakeholders a short extension to come to a voluntary agreement that meets the requirements of the state’s proposal.

While an agreement is better than a mandate, it’s unlikely the SFPUC will negotiate a settlement that meets the requirements of the amendment by December.

Instead of more delays, leaders should push action. The smoke hanging over The City is a sign that times are changing. San Francisco can’t continue to pretend that Hetch Hetchy will provide critical resources into the future. The State Water Board should approve its proposal in December, and the SFPUC should reduce its dependency on the Tuolumne River.

A recycling question from a reader:

What about plastic clamshell containers for food, like prewashed lettuce or take-out food? Barbara

Great question! Figuring out where to-go containers should go can be confusing. San Franciscans should clean out and dry plastic clamshells and toss them in the blue bin. This will keep paper and other recyclables from getting dirty.

Bringing your own take-out container to restaurants and grocery stores can eliminate the need for plastic clamshells completely. Yes, it’s an extra item to remember and pack. But it can become a habit just like bringing a tote bag to the grocery store.

Do you have sorting question? Email me at bluegreenorblack@gmail.com and look for your answer in the Examiner.

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

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