California is facing a punishing drought… again. Our rivers are running low and can’t support fish and wildlife, and people across the state will have to scramble to cut back on water use. But some urban water utilities—notably the Bay Area’s powerful San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC)—haven’t learned lessons from the past and aren’t planning for the future. In fact, the SFPUC is actually moving backwards to the detriment of the Bay and everyone who relies on it.
San Francisco is falling woefully behind in modern water management, including water recycling, and other technologies that are essential to reduce water demand. Every gallon of recycled water recycled means one more gallon can remain in our rivers—rivers that support native fishes, such as California’s storied Chinook salmon.
Other cities have learned the lessons of repeated droughts and are quickly adopting water recycling to reduce their burden on rivers while increasing the reliability of their supply. For instance, Orange County gets more than 75 percent of its water through its water reuse program. Las Vegas recycles nearly all of its water used indoors. And Los Angeles is on the path to reuse 100 percent of its wastewater by 2035.
Water recycling creates other important benefits, like pollution reduction, too. Unlike traditional wastewater management methods, recycling requires removing all potential pollutants from the water before it’s reused. Currently, SFPUC and other Bay Area wastewater utilities only partially treat their wastewater before it is released to the Bay and Pacific Ocean. As a result, San Francisco’s water treatment plant contributes high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus to the Bay; excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorus can cause harmful algal blooms that poison fish and wildlife and rob the Bay of oxygen. Investing in water recycling now will prevent these blooms from taking over the Bay.
Shockingly, SFPUC—an agency whose ratepayers are among the most environmentally conscientious in the country—is not on board with water recycling. Unlike its southern California peers, SFPUC currently has no plans to make recycled water widely available in the next 25 years.
Instead, SFPUC is pursuing multiple expensive and misguided lawsuits so that it can continue to rely almost exclusively on the Tuolumne River—one of the state’s most over-tapped rivers—for the next several decades. This approach has decimated Chinook salmon populations upstream and led to stagnant low water flows that have spurred toxic algal blooms from the Delta to San Francisco Bay.
California’s water supply is precious and becoming increasingly unpredictable. Water flowing in our rivers supports San Francisco Bay’s fisheries, water quality, and recreation. We need San Francisco to lead the way towards a more secure, sensible, and environmentally sensitive water future. SFPUC can start by dropping its legal opposition to improved river flows on the Tuolumne River and by investing aggressively in water recycling today.
SFPUC has an opportunity to course-correct and move towards a sustainable water-future for San Francisco. Click here to send a letter to Mayor Breed to urge her to direct SFPUC to invest in water recycling—for the future of California rivers, the Bay, and anyone who wants a reliable water supply.
Photo: Robb Most