Worried about water reliability and feeling neglected, Bay Area water agencies that get water from San Francisco's Hetch Hetchy system are taking the situation into their own hands. The agencies are working with state lawmakers on various approaches that would force San Francisco to repair and update the system, and would even let the agencies raise the capital improvement money themselves.
San Francisco officials appear to feel threatened and have responded with their own capital improvement plan. City leaders are talking about placing a multi-billion-dollar bond on the November ballot to fund water system projects, or even asking voters to amend the city's charter so that supervisors could approve necessary bonds.
Nearly all parties involved agree that the approximately 80-year-old Hetch Hetchy system needs repairs and seismic improvements, in addition to new facilities to meet growing demand.
"There is a risk to the whole region that we could be without water after an earthquake or other natural disaster," said Arthur Jensen, general manager of the Bay Area Water Users Association, which represents the 28 water suppliers that rely on San Francisco's system. "We have three major earthquake faults in the Bay Area, and a major earthquake on any one of those faults would result in multiple failures of the water delivery system."
Like most large water projects in California, Hetch Hetchy has a long history with a cast of colorful players. The initial fight over damming the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park's Hetch Hetchy Valley pitted Sierra Club founder John Muir against Gifford Pinchot, the legendary first chief of the U.S. Forest Service. After years of debate in California and in Washington, D.C., Pinchot and other Roosevelt Progressives won, and Congress approved dam construction in 1913.
Hetch Hetchy system engineering and construction took the next two decades, far longer than it took to build the Los Angeles Aqueduct from the eastern Sierra to Los Angeles, or the Mokelumne Aqueduct from the Sierra foothills to the East Bay. The length of the project was partly due to City Engineer Michael M. O'Shaughnessy's insistence that the system be entirely gravity fed, which required a 25-mile-long tunnel through the coastal mountain range. In 1934, the Hetch Hetchy project began delivering water, which is stored in several Bay Area reservoirs.
Today, the Hetch Hetchy system provides 85% of San Francisco's water, which supplies 2.4 million people in San Francisco and 26 other cities and water districts in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda counties, plus a private utility and Stanford University. Municipalities and businesses — especially manufacturers of high-tech products — like the Hetch Hetchy water because of its purity.
However, San Francisco's record on capital improvements is poor, according to the regional customers. The State Auditor, in a 2000 report, agreed: "The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has been slow to assess and upgrade its water delivery system so it can survive catastrophes such as earthquakes, floods and fires. It also has been slow to estimate the amount of water it will need to meet future demand and to seek additional sources of water. As a result, the nearly 2.4 million customers in four Bay Area counties who rely on the commission for their drinking water are at greater risk of disruptions and water shortages if an emergency or a drought occurs."
The State Auditor said the San Francisco PUC was slow to plan for and complete capital projects. The auditor blamed a lack of staff expertise and frequent turnover of top managers.
San Francisco PUC spokeswoman Beverly Hennessey said the agency has been working on a capital improvement plan for two years. The draft plan, which is undergoing public review this month, calls for $2.9 billion in work to upgrade the water delivery system, improve water treatment facilities and increase water storage. (The capital improvement program also calls for $1.7 billion for water and sewer improvements in San Francisco proper.) As of April 1, the PUC had not set a date to consider adopting the plan.
Factored into the plan is the need to create system redundancy because of the earthquake threat. Plus, said Hennessey, the system is old and deteriorating. "This is happing all over the county, and we're being very pro-active about it," she said. "We know we have to take some action. … This is the most important thing we are undertaking right now by far, and it's the largest public works project in the city."
But the agencies that rely on San Francisco to provide water are not convinced.
"We're not sure they are going to have the management expertise, nor the funding," said Jensen, of the Bay Area Water Users Association. "They have never adopted a capital plan."
Jensen's organization is working with Assemblyman Lou Papan (D-Millbrae) and state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) on legislation. Papan's AB 1823 would mandate a timetable for San Francisco to complete repairs on the Hetch Hetchy system and would establish a method for state oversight. The bill would also allow San Francisco to voluntarily transfer the regional water system to a new agency. Papan's AB 2058 would let the purchasers of Hetch Hetchy water form that agency.
"The structure would be somewhat like the Metropolitan Water Agency [of Southern California] in that all the agencies would have representation on the board," Jensen said. This agency could issue its own bonds and could negotiate more effectively with San Francisco, he said.
Speier's SB 1870 would allow the agencies that rely on Hetch Hetchy to establish a financing authority that could raise revenue for system improvements.
Backers of a new entity say it is critical to address governance issues. Right now, two-thirds of the Hetch Hetchy water users have no say over the system's governing board.
San Francisco leaders — who have an ally in Senate President Pro Tem John Burton of San Francisco — are opposed to the bills, saying they are unnecessary because the city is addressing the regional water system.
Still, financing remains uncertain. Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano has said a bond to fund the entire $4.6 billion capital improvement plan may not get past San Francisco voters, even though water users outside the city would pay nearly two-thirds of the cost. Unlike most California cities, San Francisco's charter requires voters to approve revenue bonds, although there is an exception for water project financing approved by 9 of the 11 San Francisco supervisors. Ammiano has proposed putting a charter amendment on the ballot, but language had not been worked out as of late March.
Meanwhile supporters of the Papan and Speier legislation are seizing on San Francisco's lack of definitive action as evidence that state legislation is needed.
Arthur Jensen, Bay Area Water Users Association, (650) 349-3000.
Beverly Hennessey, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, (415) 554-3155.
San Francisco PUC capital improvement plan: http://www.sfwater.org/main.cfm/MSC_ID/6/holdSession/1
State Auditor's report on Hetch Hetchy: http://www.bsa.ca.gov/bsa/pdfs/99124.pdf