Do you know where your water comes from? If you’re reading this, chances are most of it originates in the "wild and scenic” Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park. That’s where the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir stores snowmelt from the High Sierra for use throughout much of the Bay Area. San Mateo County receives about 85 percent of its water from the Tuolumne.
From its headwaters high in Yosemite, the Tuolumne courses 162 miles through pristine alpine meadows, wild mountain canyons, oak-studded foothills and Central Valley farmlands before joining the San Joaquin River and then flowing into the San Francisco Bay-Delta. It is the lifeblood of communities from the Sierra to the sea, connecting the fly fisher in Yosemite to the farmer in Modesto to the thirsty family in the Bay Area to the salmon fisherman in the Pacific. The River provides world-class recreational opportunities, critical habitat for fish and wildlife and electricity and water for 2.5 million people in the Bay Area.
Today, 60 percent of the Tuolumne is diverted for urban and agricultural uses, and our dependence has come at a cost. The salmon population has plummeted from historic highs of more than 130,000 fish per year to less than 1,000 in five of the last six years. Water quality in the lower Tuolumne is now listed as "impaired.”
The good news is that the Bay Area has done a great job at conserving water over the past few years. So good, in fact, that many ratepayers are asking why the cost of water is increasing when water use is declining. The answer is that 80 percent of the increases go to paying for necessary seismic upgrades to the Hetch Hetchy water system, while 20 percent go to covering fixed costs incurred even when water use declines. Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do about these rate changes.
However, there is a potential rate increase on the horizon that is unnecessary and avoidable. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which provides water to customers in San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda Counties, is negotiating a water transfer (purchase) of 2 million gallons per day from the Modesto Irrigation District at a cost of more than $1.5 million per year. This sale was initiated in 2008 when we were using more than 250 million gallons daily. Last year that figure dropped to less than 220 million.
The contract would be "take-or-pay,” meaning we would be obligated to pay $1.5 million per year whether we used the water or not. This is a terrible investment for water we no longer need.
A recent SFPUC report acknowledged that while the cost of transfer water would be about $2,100 per million gallons, the actual cost of water used (since it would only be needed every three to five years, according to old demand projections) would be about $7,400 per million gallons. Water conservation, on the other hand, is dramatically cheaper.
Instead of spending more than $1.5 million per year on water we don’t need, we should pursue affordable alternatives such as water conservation. For example, cities and water agencies could adopt programs that promote landscape irrigation efficiency, reducing water use by 20 percent to 40 percent.
It costs about $5,000 to install and operate a smart commercial irrigation controller, including hardware, turnkey installation, 10 years of weather data and Internet services. Each controller could save 200,000 gallons of water per year. Therefore, for the $1.5 million cost of the water transfer we could install 300 controllers, saving about 60 million gallons per day. In 12 years, we would conserve an amount of water equivalent to the water transfer at a fraction of the cost. These savings would be permanent.
Paying $1.5 million per year for water we no longer need makes no sense and would further outrage ratepayers. Fortunately, there’s still time for our elected representatives to choose a different path. Do you know where your city councilmembers stand on this issue? Are they even aware it’s being considered?
Please contact your elected representatives and encourage them to stand up for you as a ratepayer. You can express your concerns to the SFPUC by visiting http://tinyurl.com/StopTheTransfer.
Peter Drekmeier is the Bay Area program director of the Tuolumne River Trust and a former mayor of Palo Alto.