Drought impacts less severe in SF, compared to rest of state 

click to enlarge In this July 16, 2014 photo, what was once the Echo Bay Marina sits high and dry next to Lake Mead in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada. A 14-year drought has caused the water level in Lake Mead to shrink to its lowest point since it was first filled in the 1930s. - JOHN LOCHER, ASSOCIATED PRESS
  • John Locher, Associated Press
  • In this July 16, 2014 photo, what was once the Echo Bay Marina sits high and dry next to Lake Mead in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada. A 14-year drought has caused the water level in Lake Mead to shrink to its lowest point since it was first filled in the 1930s.
In the fourth year of what could be the worst drought in California’s history, San Francisco is feeling the effects much less dramatically than other parts of the state.

The City will continue to use fresh drinking water to flush toilets, clean streets and keep golf courses green, while homes in the Central Valley could be declared uninhabitable this year for lack of water, state officials say.

That may sound wasteful. Yet San Francisco is one of the most conservation-minded places in California, and it will not have to meet Gov. Jerry Brown’s mandatory 25 percent water use reductions — not even by half.

But as other cities and farming districts face the real prospect of going dry, The City will continue to sell extra water to other Bay Area cities and towns, some of which might have to cut water use by 35 percent.

This set of seeming contradictions — a model for statewide water-use efficiency, despite little to no application of recycled water or local water resources — illustrates San Francisco’s unique and enviable position as the drought continues to worsen.

LESS USE, FEWER CUTS

California’s more than 38 million people use about 10 percent of the state’s water, according to the Public Policy Institute.

The agriculture industry is vilified for its perceived water profligacy, yet it accounts for just 40 percent of use.

The rest of the state’s water is deemed environmental, devoted to maintain wildlife habitats in streams, rivers and wetlands.

About half of urban water use goes into lawns and gardens — two things most urban apartment dwellers do not have.

This is a main reason why The City’s per capita water use – 45.7 gallons per person per day, according to the State Water Resources Control Board — is so low.

The proposed water use reductions fall into four tiers and range from 10 percent cutbacks to 35 percent.

San Francisco’s low use puts it into the first tier. Other Bay Area cities like Hillsborough, where large, water-thirsty lawns helped push per capita water use to 281 gallons per person per day, fall into the fourth tier.

GOOD SAVINGS, BUT MORE NEEDED

Low use was one reason why Mayor Ed Lee was able to ask the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s 2.6 million Bay Area customers — which, along with The City, includes homes and businesses in Palo Alto and San Jose — to cut back by only 10 percent last year while Brown pushed for 20 percent cuts statewide.

Despite using 1.6 billion gallons less than normal between June and February, San Francisco cut use by only 8 percent, according to state data.

And water savings so far this year have been mixed, with the SFPUC twice measuring increased use year over year.

Meanwhile, customers served by the East Bay Municipal Utilities District cut use by 12 percent. But since per capita use is higher at 83.8 gallons per day, EBMUD customers will have to cut use by 20 percent this year, according to initial state projections.

“Most of the Bay Area is pretty similar with indoor water use,” said Abby Figueroa, a spokeswoman for EBMUD. “Outdoors is where you see the greatest variation.”

SNOWMELT ON THE STREET

The SFPUC draws 85 percent of its water — between 60 and 75 million gallons a day in The City, and between 170 million and 220 million gallons a day systemwide — from the Tuolumne River in the Sierra Nevada in an arrangement that dates back more than 100 years.

As one of the state’s oldest cities, San Francisco had some of the first dibs on water. Cities that were established later but grew to be larger — like San Jose and San Diego — have had to make do with what’s left or find other sources.

Only recently has The City explored drawing water from other sources. Both the Department of Public Works and the Recreation and Park Department have limited recycled water access. Two city golf courses are watered with recycled water, and the DPW’s street cleaners can fill up with recycled water usually just once a day, said SFPUC spokesman Tyrone Jue.

Up to 6 million gallons a day could eventually come from local groundwater and recycled water by 2019, when a recycled water treatment plant on The City’s west side is scheduled to be completed.

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Bio:
Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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