SF’s water agency faces fiscal 'disaster' 

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
  • The system that delivers water from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is in need of repairs.
A financial “disaster” is staring the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in the face, as The City’s provider of drinking water and public electricity has $467.7 million worth of work to do over the next decade on the network of pipes and tunnels that delivers water from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir — and no immediate way to pay for it all.

“It’s a description of a disaster,” SFPUC commissioner Anson Moran said Feb. 11. “It’s not a plan for survival. ... We need a 10-year plan. And we don’t have one.”

Driving the deficit is the recently discovered need to rebuild or replace a 12-mile-long underground conduit called Mountain Tunnel. Continuously in service since the 1920s, with only “minimal” maintenance done in that time, the tunnel delivers 85 percent of the 265 million gallons of water the SFPUC provides a day. It also connects The City’s main hydroelectric power station with its water source in Yosemite National Park.

Inspections conducted last summer revealed the tunnel needs to be repaired or replaced.

The SFPUC needs $628 million or more to fix the tunnel, a major unexpected cost that is leading to a budget deficit agency officials have dubbed a “fiscal cliff.”

No funding source for the repair has yet been identified, but some potential solutions include the SFPUC, which sells most of the water it delivers to cities such as Palo Alto and San Jose, adding customers. The agency could raise rates on existing customers, including The City’s homes and businesses.

The SFPUC plans to make a decision by June, agency General Manager Harlan Kelly said.

The sudden news of Mountain Tunnel’s fragility, which comes after much of the Hetch Hetchy water system underwent a major seismic-safety upgrade, was “sudden and alarming,” according to Nicole Sandkulla, CEO of the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, which represents the 1.7 million people on the Peninsula and in San Jose who buy water from the SFPUC.

The earliest the tunnel could be repaired or replaced is 2022, according to SFPUC documents.

In the meantime, the SFPUC needs to craft a short-term emergency plan in the event the tunnel collapses, Sandkulla said.

That could come as early as March, before the blueprint for a long-term fix is due in June.

“It’s a single conduit through which 85 percent of our water” is delivered, she said. “Without it, we’re cut off ... That’s pretty significant.“

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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