SF water and power system could fail without comprehensive repairs 

click to enlarge Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
  • Dan Schreiber/S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • The 19-mile-long Mountain Tunnel that connects Yosemite to San Francisco is in danger of collapse, the SFPUC says.
A key part of the far-flung network of pipes, tunnels and power lines that brings water to millions of Bay Area residents and electricity to Muni and San Francisco General Hospital is in danger of collapsing.

And finding the $625 million needed to fix the 19-mile-long Mountain Tunnel — which connects The City’s main hydroelectric powerhouse to its water source in Yosemite National Park — could push the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to the brink of fiscal collapse.

The SFPUC, which manages The City’s drinking and sewer water flows and sells excess water and power to other Bay Area cities, may be as much as $400 million in the red by 2022, according to budget projections presented last week.

That’s just in the long term. In the short term, bills for capital projects coming due put the SFPUC in an immediate $15 million hole, budget documents show.

The dire long-term budget forecast is thanks to the bill to fix Mountain Tunnel — a mortar-lined, single-bore water pathway underneath state Highway 120 near Groveland that’s been in continuous operation with little to no repairs done since 1925. It shot up from a $114 million project to fix the tunnel’s lining a year ago to a $628 million complete replacement project today.

The SFPUC is also dealing with bigger bills charged by PG&E for the right to run Hetch Hetchy power through the utility’s local lines, and has only a limited number of ways to pay for it all.

If the agency raised the rates it charges for power to other city departments like Muni and the hospital, it would still be in the red.

That means finding more customers to buy Hetch Hetchy water or power — or cutting staff.

“Hetchy is in trouble,” said Harlan Kelly, the SFPUC’s general manager. The agency has dubbed the budget problem a “fiscal cliff.”

The SFPUC’s total budget for the current fiscal year is about $890 million.

Initially, the SFPUC planned only to fix Mountain Tunnel’s concrete-and-mortar lining, a $114 million job that would take almost a decade to complete thanks to a limited work window of two to three months every year.

That’s the only time the tunnel could be taken out of service while still allowing the SFPUC to supply the Bay Area with water.

But inspections conducted in 2008 and a lengthy review finished in September of last year — right as the Rim Fire was still raging — revealed that Mountain Tunnel could collapse at any time.

If that happened, San Francisco would still receive some power from Hetch Hetchy – two of The City’s three powerhouses are upstream from the tunnel – but 2.6 million businesses and households would be cut off from their water supply.

Mountain Tunnel could theoretically fail “today,” according to Steven Ritchie, the SFPUC’s assistant general manager for water. Many segments of the tunnel are already collapsing, he said, and the probability of “catastrophic failure” becomes more and more likely with each passing year.

If the 19-mile tunnel did collapse, Hetch Hetchy would still produce power — two of The City’s three powerhouses are upriver — but San Francisco would be cut off from its water supply for as long as nine months, according to the SFPUC.

The agency is pondering 14 fixes to Mountain Tunnel, including building a second, new “bypass” tunnel to replace the aging one.

Any fix would need approval from the U.S. Forest Service following environmental review.

Construction would not begin until 2019.

The SFPUC has a few months to decide what fix to choose and where to find the money — being selected as the power provider for the new housing developments at Treasure Island, Parkmerced and Hunters Point would generate some cash flow — but, “No one thing will solve the problem,” said Todd Rykstrom, the SFPUC’s chief financial officer.

Water still everywhere for SF customers

Despite record dry weather and the declaration of an official drought emergency, there’s water everywhere and plenty of it to drink, fill the sink, bathe and water the lawn with for San Francisco residents.

For now, at least.

With reservoirs in some parts of the state running empty, The City’s Hetch Hetchy system was still at 70 percent of its storage capacity as of last week, according to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday called for Californians to cut their water use by 20 percent to make up for what he said could be the worst drought in the state in 100 years. Most City residents are already there, and then some.

San Franciscans use half the water – 88 gallons a day – as residents in other parts of the state, according to the SFPUC. That’s in part because most residents in The City don’t have lawns to water.

SFPUC reservoirs last reached “minimum storage” levels in 1992. That was also the last time there were mandatory water use restrictions in San Francisco.

Rainfall is currently at 9 percent of normal in the Hetch Hetchy watershed. The SFPUC could declare its own drought Feb. 1, but the earliest The City could declare mandatory rationing is April 15, according to the SFPUC.

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

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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