Why I sued the California water board

by Dennis Herrera
[Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, May 28, 2021]

San Francisco, like much of our state, is in an extreme drought. As the water
provider to 2.8 million Bay Area residents and businesses, the San Francisco Public
Utilities Commission is ready to do its fair share to navigate this historic dry period
while preserving and improving the Tuolumne River ecosystem that provides us
with the majority of our water supply.

Unfortunately, at this stage, it lacks a state partner willing to do the same.

California’s State Water Resources Control Board has advanced a plan for the
Tuolumne River that SFPUC modeling shows could result in the near-total
depletion of San Francisco’s water supplies during drought. That’s not just a San
Francisco problem. That’s a problem for the more than two dozen cities, water
districts and counties that get their water from San Francisco’s regional water

The state board wants to impose much stricter flow conditions upon San Francisco
— even more onerous than those in the 2018 Bay Delta Plan Amendment that the
city is already challenging in court. On top of the Bay Delta Plan’s 40% unimpaired
water flow requirement, the state is now trying to divert more water based on
temperature and water salinity requirements, among other things. Under current
customer demand levels, the SFPUC estimates its regional water system would
experience shortages equivalent to approximately 75% rationing during a drought
under these new state requirements.

Crucially, there is no assurance that the water San Francisco is being told to give up
under the state’s new plan wouldn’t simply be snapped up and sent to Southern
California or elsewhere. That is why, in consultation with the SFPUC, I sued the
water board to stop its misguided plan.

While San Franciscans can and will conserve more during this drought, we already
have among the lowest per capita water usage in the state. In fiscal year 2020, the residential per capita water use in San Francisco was about 42 gallons per day,
which is less than half the statewide average residential use of 89 gallons per day.

The SFPUC has worked hard to be a responsible steward of our water supply. The
city shares the goal of protecting the environment, including native fish species.

We can do that while maintaining a sustainable water supply. This is not an either-
or situation.

The SFPUC has proposed increased river flows and habitat improvement measures
on the Tuolumne River to benefit native fish species. Not only is San Francisco
willing to implement these measures, we’re already taking action. In February, the
SFPUC authorized $1.5 million to fund early implementation of habitat
improvement projects on the lower Tuolumne River. We can preserve chinook
salmon and other river wildlife during a drought without the state unfairly
staunching San Francisco’s water supply.

San Francisco is aggressively diversifying its water sources. We now require
recycled water systems in large-scale residential and commercial developments.
We’re developing groundwater sources and building a recycled water treatment
facility that can save up to 2 million to 4 million gallons of drinking water per day.

But diversifying our water supply further will take time. We’re in a drought now.
Brokering an agreement with the state is the best way to resolve our varying
concerns and lawsuits.

The SFPUC continues to negotiate in good faith, despite the state’s actions. In the
middle of an extreme drought, we should all be working to ensure regions across
California do their fair share to increase water efficiency. But singling out one of the
most responsible water users is not the answer.

Dennis Herrera is the City Attorney of San Francisco.