There’s not much of a mystery why the Modesto Irrigation District (MID) Board of Directors wants to sell water to San Francisco. Faced with a water treatment plant that has become an embarrassing money pit and having failed to raise rates enough to maintain infrastructure, they need the money. San Francisco’s demand for water, on the other hand, is at first glance a bit puzzling.
As recently as November 17, 2011, the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, which works closely with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), noted the following:
In conclusion, the projected water demands during normal years are reduced, and there is no immediate need for regional investment in normal year supplies…current water demand projections are affected by cooler weather conditions, conservation savings, and current population and economic growth projections…there is a risk in deferring development of new water supply because there could be an economic rebound or other unexpected changes in conditions.
In short, San Francisco doesn’t need the water unless there’s a series of drought years or “unexpected changes in conditions,” factors which apply equally to Modesto’s own needs. And San Francisco’s water consumption is falling despite a failure to observe conservation measures which have enabled cities like Seattle and Los Angeles to reduce water consumption while adding population.
Even more puzzling is the apparent conviction by both the MID and the SFPUC that a water transfer will pass an Environmental Impact Review (EIR). In a July 2007 report, the Tuolumne River Trust produced a thorough study of the river. The study affirmed what close followers of river news have known for years: The Tuolumne River can ill afford to lose any more water.
The Tuolumne’s famed Chinook salmon run has never recovered from ongoing diversions of the river, but thanks to the Tuolumne River Trust, the salmon run has been on the way to a modest recovery. Here’s just a snippet what the Trust’s report had to say about some of the effects of San Francisco’s request for more water:
Reduced flows will harm the Tuolumne’s trout, salmon, and steelhead fisheries. The diversion would also degrade whitewater recreation and cause economic harm to Sierra communities that depend on seasonal recreation. The health of the San Francisco Bay-Delta is also at stake. Reduced Tuolumne flows would further impair the delicate saltwater balance key to the estuary’s complex habitat.
Given what we know, San Francisco’s attempts to garner over 20 million gallons a day of Tuolumne River water are indeed puzzling, unless of course one fits the request into the recent pattern of a state-wide rush on water.
Earlier this year, Senator Dianne Feintstein added a provision to the 2012 Budget Bill that made it easier to transfer water. In a special report to the Sacramento Bee, former legislative director Patricia Schifferle argued that Feinstein is working closely with a few wealthy water mavens to privatize water sales (Feinstein’s response is here).
Given the otherwise puzzling context of San Francisco’s water demands, Schifferle’s argument is especially persuasive. Even in 2007, 100% of the increase in anticipated demand for water was driven by San Francisco’s wholesale customers, who represent only a tiny fraction of those who will be demanding water in the near future as California finally confronts the realities of the arid west.
In 1908, John Muir called those who would dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley (which he called the “Tuolumne Yosemite”), “devotees of ravaging commercialism.” Today, San Francisco is again leading the way in what amounts to the new gold rush. Valley citizens better hope MID directors reject what is a clear ploy to lock in an invaluable resource for what will one day be seen as a few paltry dollars.