The Truth About San Francisco's Water
These comments are not about the quality of our drinking water. These comments are about the way the provider of our water, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), works - and doesn't work.
Earthquakes, climate change, and drought cause fires. Water suppresses fires. San Francisco is surrounded on three sides by water - yet today, over half the City is still not protected against catastrophic fires because the SFPUC has refused to expand the independent Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS) that is designed to use unlimited seawater.
The Urban Water Management Plan—UWMP
The SFPUC, as a State regulated water carrier, is responsible for providing water to all San Francisco customers and for all municipal uses, including firefighting. However, as well regulated as the SFPUC is, the Water Enterprise continues to operate without full transparency and accountability to the public.
The California Constitution declares that “the general welfare requires that the water resources of the State be put to beneficial use to the fullest extent of which they are capable ...” and “that the conservation of such waters is to be exercised ...”
The UWMP is a Big Deal because it serves as the legal and technical water management foundation for all water suppliers throughout California …
The State legislates regulations for water carriers (i.e., SFPUC) and the Department of Water Resources oversees these laws on behalf of the public welfare. In 1983 the California Legislature enacted the "Urban Water Management Planning Act (UWMP) “that requires an urban water supplier to update its UWMP every five years with current data on water availability and demands, with plans to prepare for droughts, seismic events, and climate changes affecting water supplies.”
The Governor is responsible for ensuring that state laws are enforced and is empowered to take emergency actions for situations requiring immediate attention, such as he did on May 10th when he declared a drought emergency and called upon “all Californians to help meet this challenge by stepping up their efforts to save water.”
The San Francisco Charter states that all commissions “shall approve goals, objectives, plans and programs and set policies consistent with the overall objectives of the City and County...” and that specifically the SFPUC “shall have charge of ... the use and control of all water and energy supplies and utilities of the City...”.
Water Managers and Staff and the Truth
This is a partial list of the governing entities, laws, legal powers and duties for the SFPUC. While the Commission sets the policies, departmental managers and staff develop the goals, objectives, plans and programs brought to the Commission for approval. However, the Water Enterprise managers and staff have not always told the public the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about their plans.
Senior managers control the narrative of their plans by failing to publicly reveal SFPUC's true objectives, or by misleading decision makers by releasing only partial details of proposed projects, or by willfully ignoring an inconvenient section of the Water Code, or by secretly marginalizing our redundant water delivery system that has protected the City for over 100 years.
The Commission cannot perform its duties when the truth is withheld from them. Many controversial Water Enterprise objectives are never approved by the Commission because they were never asked to do so. Managers preparing plans and reports cherry-pick the facts, hide negative implications, omit critical details, or fundamentally change projects in midstream which compromises the Commission's ability to make informed decisions. No one is served well by deflecting Commissioners from understanding the ramifications of the proposals before them.
June 8th - Mark your calendar
One of the most important duties currently before the Commission is the adoption of the final 2020 Urban Water Management Plan (UWMP). By law, the SFPUC must update its UWMP every five years and tailor the revised Plan to reflect the local conditions of the City. The Plan offers an opportunity for the SFPUC to inform its customers, other water suppliers, and local and state governmental bodies of San Francisco's water supply and demand conditions with a consistent and comprehensive analysis that includes the community in the planning.
On June 8th the updated Plan will be presented to the Commission for adoption. Approved Plans must be submitted to the Department of Water Resources in Sacramento by July 1, 2021. The UWMP is a Big Deal because it serves as the legal and technical water management foundation for all water suppliers throughout California, functions as the long-range resource planning document to ensure adequate water supplies are available to meet existing and future demands for water, and addresses statewide issues of concern such as Governor Newsom's call for our help “to save water.”
Unfortunately, the SFPUC draft Plan is incomplete by not citing the AWSS exists and saves potable water, and it inaccurately describes “the site conditions and characteristics unique to San Francisco water use.” Guidelines recommend that these unique situations requiring further explanation beyond the statutory criteria be detailed in the 2020 UWMP. I submitted to the SFPUC the following requests to revise the City's UWMP to comply with the invitation for clarifications.
Requisites for a complete plan
1) To include as part of the history of the City's water supply, the AWSS that was built after the 1906 earthquake and fire that accesses seawater for firefighting that still functions today;
2) To record the fact that Mayor Newsom transferred in 2010 the functions, physical assets, and civil service employees of the AWSS from the Fire Department to the SFPUC;
3) To acknowledge that the AWSS may revert to the Fire Department under conditions specified in the transfer notice;
4) To preserve the name of the AWSS as the unique San Francisco entity that functions as the secondary high-pressure firefighting system that uses non-potable water and seawater;
5) To acknowledge that the Emergency Firefighting Water System (EFWS) functions as the primary low-pressure firefighting system that uses potable drinking water;
6) To list as part of the City's water system description, the AWSS assets of the Twin Peaks Reservoir, two storage tanks, 230 cisterns,135 miles of pipelines, and 1889 high pressure hydrants;
7) To include in the City's account of existing sources of water to fight fires, the 30,000,000 gallons of non-potable water stored locally throughout the AWSS network which saves using 30,000,000 gallons of potable water;
8) To include in the City's list of future local supplies, the 1,200,000,000 gallons of non-potable water in Lake Merced to be used for firefighting, citing the actions that the SFPUC will take to prevent contamination of the potable water system when using water supplied from Lake Merced;
9) To include the AWSS and its use of seawater as part of the SFPUC's conservation practices that save potable water and provide customer benefits;
10) To acknowledge and inform the public that the SFPUC must comply with Water Code Section 73503 that requires distribution of water from three San Francisco reservoirs, including Sunset Reservoir, to be made to San Francisco and peninsula customers on an equitable basis if an earthquake interrupts the water supply, which then restricts the amount of locally available water for City uses.
Water is always a serious matter, and no more so than today with so many environmental challenges. The public, the decision makers, and the public officials all need to be told the honest truth about San Francisco's water by those who are in charge of it - the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. We are waiting for the answers.
Nancy Wuerfel is a government fiscal analyst and served as a member of the Park, Recreation, Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) for 9 years.