Rebuilding today for future water service 

click to enlarge Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
  • dan schreiber/2012 s.f. examiner file photo
  • The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is planning much-needed repairs to Mountain Tunnel, the Bay Area’s link to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission focuses every day on operating an essential water, power and sewer system that serves the San Francisco Bay Area. These aging assets and facilities work in concert to provide service 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Since 1934, the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System has reliably delivered water to the Bay Area through a system of tunnels, dams, pipelines, and facilities constructed to serve a growing economy and region.

As we deal with the aftermath of the historic Rim Fire, another challenge facing us is the Mountain Tunnel. Built in 1925, the Mountain Tunnel is a critical part of our original water and hydroelectric system. The tunnel has exhibited, as one would expect, lining deterioration from the normal wear and tear of being in service for more than 89 years. While major upgrades to the tunnel were already included in our long-term capital plan, a recent evaluation of several project alternatives has allowed for newer cost estimates and timelines. Now we’re initiating detailed planning and design before beginning the required environmental review process.

Our customers should feel confident in our proven ability to plan and upgrade our aging systems. Our water system today stands more resilient thanks to our ongoing improvements and continuing public support. For the past decade, we have been successfully completing one of the nation’s largest water infrastructure programs — the $4.6 billion Water System Improvement Program. Each of the 85 construction projects was carefully selected to improve the seismic and supply reliability needed to continue delivering water to 2.6 million people after a major earthquake or drought.

From the first tunnel under the San Francisco Bay and new groundwater facilities, to a new replacement dam, we are now at 75 percent completion without interruption of water delivery to our customers. Some have compared the complexity of WSIP to flying a 747 airplane with maintenance crews performing repairs in midflight. That analogy is not far from the truth, and years of careful planning by the SFPUC were needed.

We’re approaching the Mountain Tunnel with the same deliberate process and benefiting from a decade of experience gained from the WSIP in infrastructure planning, design, hydraulic modeling and scheduled construction during normal operations.

There are certainly challenges as we identify options to pay for this project with water and power funds. However, we’re already evaluating strategies to reduce our operating costs and identify potential funding sources. We’re also committed to protecting the funds entrusted to us by customers by thoroughly evaluating risk, cost and project feasibility for this critical repair.

Water and sewer utilities throughout the United States are getting started or struggling to address their own aging infrastructure challenges. San Francisco and those served by the Hetch Hetchy Regional Water System should be proud that we’ve already been prudently planning and continuing to make the necessary investments in our vital systems.

Harlan Kelly Jr. is the general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

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