Water Supply

Commentary – Nancy Wuerfel

SFPUC Misleads Public

By Nancy Wuerfel

The City might not have exclusive authority to use 79 percent of our locally stored water in three City reservoirs because the State Water Code mandates that we share this water with peninsula customers in an emergency.

But, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) is ignoring the law and telling city residents to rely on the Sunset Reservoir’s water for post-earthquake firefighting – as if the City did have unilateral rights to the water. They are even planning to ask voters to approve a General Obligation Bond in 2020 to replace the reservoir’s water pipelines to “help fight fires,” knowing that the bond projects might not be guaranteed access to the water.

The SFPUC knows all this, but continues to pursue its plan, claiming the state law is not applicable.

In 2003, SFPUC Commissioner Jeffrey Chen wondered: What was really going to happen if things went bad in a worst-case scenario following a major water emergency or earthquake. Now, 15 years later in 2018, the SFPUC has made a disastrous decision that will ensure that things really will go bad after an earthquake by forcing the SF Fire Department to rely on a conditional and limited source of water at the Sunset Reservoir.

The SFPUC has decided to use the reservoir’s drinking water to put out fires, even though we will need water for human uses in an emergency, and the reservoir does not have near enough water to fight the Santa Rosa style conflagrations that will occur in the Richmond and Sunset districts.

Finally, the reservoir water might not even be legally available for this ill-conceived project. The SFPUC has willfully disregarded the following facts:

• San Francisco does not have exclusive use of the water in the City’s “terminal reservoirs” – Sunset, University Mound and Merced Manor. The 2002 State Water Code, Section 73503, requires that the SFPUC distribute water from the terminal reservoirs to customers “on an equitable basis” during any interruption in supply caused by earthquake or other natural or manmade catastrophe.

By law, our locally stored water must be “back flowed” to the 27 peninsula customers (cities) and shared with them in an emergency. By contract, these regional customers have been paying the SFPUC for a portion of the essential repairs and improvements to these reservoirs for many years;

• There is no formula in the State Water Code that defines how much water must be sent to the peninsula customers in an emergency, so the amount of water left in the City for either drinking or for firefighting is not known. The terminal reservoirs hold 79 percent of our stored water and all of it is jointly owned by the City and peninsula customers.

Less than one day’s worth of potable water – 85 million gallons that is locally stored – is exclusively owned by the City;

• By state regulation, years of an extended drought could require a reduction in the volume of water deliveries to local reservoirs, which reduces the amount of potable water available after an earthquake.

We must preserve for human uses the drinking water we have in the City in case of drought restrictions or broken Hetch Hetchy supply lines from earthquakes. Our local reservoirs may not be filled to the brim when an emergency strikes;

• A 2018 engineering report recommended that the SFPUC adopt “Option 12” to retrofit water pipeline mains from the Sunset Reservoir to supply water for fighting fires after an earthquake.

However, it is clear from the report that the consultants were not informed about legal obligations to share Sunset water with peninsula customers in an emergency or the possible restrictions on water delivery during drought years. There are no calculations showing that these reductions in reservoir water were factored into the final recommendation.

The SFPUC misled engineers to believe that all 90 million gallons of the water in the Sunset Reservoir’s North Basin was guaranteed to firefighters. An option to build a pump station at the Pacific Ocean to access this unlimited supply of water to suppress fires was not chosen;

• Fire boats used to pump bay water cannot be used to pump ocean water because strong ocean currents are unsafe for the boats. However, building a small pump station at the ocean can provide all the water firefighters would need and it would be readily available whenever required.

Since 1913, the northeastern and central parts of the City have been protected by the original Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS), an independent network of high-pressure, high-volume water pipes and hydrants designed to use the ocean as its primary source of water and is 100 percent dedicated to putting out fires. San Francisco is the only place in the United States with this ingenious system. It works because we are surrounded by water and have designated water tanks to provide stored water as well.

Now it is time to protect the lives and property of the citizens in the western and southern residential neighborhoods by prioritizing expansion of the AWSS network into these underserved areas and by accessing the ocean water at our doorstep.

We can save 15 neighborhoods from catastrophic destruction if we demand that the AWSS be completed now, before a major earthquake strikes, by using the 2020 issue of the ESER bonds to finance it. City bonds must not be wasted on the SFPUC’s plan to replace pipelines to a reservoir that will not serve our firefighters’ need for water.

Tell your supervisor you want real fire protection!

Nancy Wuerfel is a government fiscal analyst and served as a member of the SF Recreation and Park Department’s Open Space Advisory Committee for nine years.

Editor’s note: The SF City Attorney’s Office refutes the State Water Code’s provisions and says the City does not have to provide water to its Peninsula customers after an earthquake.

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