To believe that water imported from the Sierra Nevada will always be available and plentiful for coastal cities is wishful thinking. That’s a lesson Los Angeles learned when the courts and the state, in an effort to stave off environmental damage, ordered it to cut back on the water it drew from Owens Valley and the Eastern Sierra. Since the 1990s, Los Angeles has bought more water from state and regional water projects (which have their own problems), but it has also developed local sources of water, including recycling and groundwater. In the past decade, the city’s new approach to water has allowed Mono Lake, a unique ecosystem that was being drained, to recover from near ecological collapse. (Until recently, one of the most popular bumper stickers in San Francisco, always eager to scold its less ecologically correct rival to the south, said “Save Mono Lake.”)
While Los Angeles still uses far more water per capita than San Francisco, the southern city’s changing approach to water is an example of reforms that are happening across California. The arid state, like the rest of the Western United States, will likely get drier as global climate change takes effect. It is also becoming more and more crowded—the population is expected to surge to as high as 48 million by 2020. To prepare for these changes, and to address the iniquities of previous generations, water agencies across the state are beginning to work together on projects to conserve and recycle water, or store water from wet years in underground aquifers to use later. They are discussing ecosystem restoration and better water management in the troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, just across the bay from San Francisco. The fighting is not over, and California must still confront a host of water-related challenges, but it is moving away from the idea that water resources must be jealously guarded, or that any water source is a birthright. Other municipalities have been re-examining plumbing systems that date back to the early 20th century—why should San Francisco, with its sweet, 100-year-old deal, be immune?
It’s true that most water in California goes toward agriculture, and San Francisco, which is too chilly for swimming pools and too densely populated for lawns, has a per-capita water usage rate half that of other large cities (the rate is higher among San Francisco’s neighbors, which purchase water from the city). San Francisco has proven good at water conservation, and consistent with the goals laid out by the Restore Hetch Hetchy ballot initiative, the Public Utilities Commission has begun small-scale groundwater and recycling programs. But the agency, nearing completion of $4.6 billion in infrastructure improvements, has spent far more on shoring up the current system than on adapting it to the 21st century.
The Public Utilities Commission, which recently moved, with much fanfare, into a $200 million “green” office building downtown, is taking more credit for modernizing its water system than it deserves. The city’s recycling efforts are essentially cosmetic—watering golf courses and parks. Rain-water capture in San Francisco is limited to home rain barrels; the rest of the storm runoff during the rainy season is treated as sewage. And residents have proven resistant to the idea of groundwater, because the Public Utilities Commission has spent years promoting the “delicious,” pristine snowmelt brought to them by the Hetch Hetchy system.
Studies by academics, environmentalists, the federal government, and the state have shown that draining the reservoir and restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley is feasible, if expensive. At present, the city and its water customers get 85 percent of their water from the Sierra Nevada via the Tuolumne River (not all of which comes from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir), and most of the rest from local runoff. If San Francisco could no longer draw on Hetch Hetchy water, the city could still retain rights to Tuolumne River water and would lose only an estimated one-fifth of its water in one year out of five. Perhaps the city and its water customers are not prepared to make that sacrifice now, or to spend the billions it could take to compensate for the lost water, but why shouldn’t they—if only as a contingency plan—figure out alternatives to storing water in Hetch Hetchy?
By refusing to even discuss the ballot initiative, city leaders are closing their eyes to a problem that could come to a head in the next few decades. They are refusing to work with the rest of California to develop a sustainable plan to keep the taps running and irrigation flowing across the most populous state in the union. And they are clinging to a water system that, while it worked brilliantly in the 20th century, might not be the best deal in the 21st.
Whatever voters decide in November, it’s important to remember that dams don’t last forever. If the O’Shaughnessy Dam does need to be replaced, there’s no guarantee that the federal government will allow San Francisco to rebuild, or that the city could afford to do so. This might not be the right year for San Francisco to give up the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, but that year may come sooner than the city would like. Wouldn’t it be smart to begin preparing for that now?