By Bill Martin and Hunter Cutting
San Francisco has long been an international leader on environmental issues. However, water policy has been a stain on that record. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has failed to modernize the City’s water policies. Today, Santa Monica — and even Los Angeles and Orange County — are far ahead of San Francisco in water sustainability. The hiring of a new SPFUC General Manager provides the Mayor and the SFPUC commissioners an opportunity to chart a new course on water.
Many California rivers are overtapped by excessive pumping, but few are in worse condition than the Tuolumne River. In drier years, more than 90% of the Tuolumne’s water is diverted. On average, 80 percent of the river’s flow never makes it to the Bay. It’s not a surprise that the river’s health has collapsed.
In 1985, 40,000 Chinook salmon spawned in the Tuolumne. Today, that number has fallen more than 97 percent. Despite a state mandate to double salmon over the past 25 years, under the SFPUC’s stewardship, the Tuolumne has lost ground dramatically — making it the worst Central Valley river from the perspective of protecting salmon. Endangered Species Act listed Central Valley steelhead face a similar decline. And downstream, this overpumping threatens green sturgeon, spring-run Chinook salmon, longfin smelt, Delta smelt and more. The SFPUC has helped make San Francisco Bay a global fish extinction hot spot.
The State Water Resources Control Board has tried to require significantly more river flow, which science tells us is the leading cause of this environmental crisis. Yet SFPUC staff has opposed those efforts and partnered with Central Valley agricultural water districts to develop a junk science-based “voluntary agreement” that would do next to nothing to restore Tuolumne flows. This phony “voluntary agreement” process has been used to stall stronger Bay-Delta protections for years. Meanwhile, fish fall closer to extinction and salmon fishermen, including on our own Fishermen’s Wharf, struggle to keep their businesses afloat.
Many will not be surprised that thirsty Central Valley agricultural barons oppose science-based protections for San Francisco Bay. Ditto the Southern California monolith, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. But City residents may be surprised that one of the most influential opponents of efforts to restore the Bay-Delta, and its rivers and salmon, is the SFPUC — our water agency.
The SFPUC is influential in opposing protections for the Bay precisely because of the City’s reputation as an environmental leader. People assume that if San Francisco opposes Bay protections, that position must be based on credible science. For those who know the truth, this sticks in our craw.
Over a decade ago, California adopted a requirement to reduce our reliance on water from the overtapped Bay-Delta. Other cities have made real progress. Orange County is a world leader in water recycling. Los Angeles is planning to cut its use of imported water dramatically. Santa Monica is planning to clean up their groundwater and stop using any Bay-Delta water.
The SFPUC has a decent record on water conservation. But the agency has largely ignored the growing toolbox of proven strategies, like water recycling, to reduce reliance on the Tuolumne River. Instead, they are planning to increase their total water sales in the Bay Area by one third — with most of that coming from the Tuolumne.
San Francisco should lead the way in supporting science-based protections for the Bay and salmon, and in implementing programs to reduce our use of our precious water resources. It’s time for Mayor Breed and the SFPUC Commission to hire an experienced, progressive general manager from a leading outside water agency to give San Francisco the water agency we want and deserve.
Bill Martin is a San Francisco resident and a member of the Sierra Club Bay Chapter Water Committee. Hunter Cutting is a San Francisco resident and member of the Sierra Club Bay Chapter’s San Francisco Group Executive Committee.