First of a three-part series
Where does the water we use here on the Peninsula come from? Well, the tap, of course.
We don’t think much more about it, until summer drought measures are imposed or the water turns cloudy around mid-January (when we switch to our local reservoir, ).
The story of how water reaches us, who controls it and the high cost of its long-distance delivery is a complicated one. But it also makes clear the need to conserve this vital resource, recycle it where possible and become more self-sufficient in the long run.
Within San Mateo County, only about 15 percent of our drinkable water comes from local sources, including wells, aquifers, and the Crystal Springs reservoirs. The rest comes from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park, fed by snowmelt to the Tuolumne River.
To reach us, it has to be piped over 200 miles. The energy it takes to move millions of gallons so far puts water conservation on the short list of climate change fighting tools.
Like all water issues in the West, who legally and physically controls the supply is a tangled and politically touchy one.
Since the 1930s, San Francisco has owned and operated the water system, with its Public Utilities Commission serving local water agencies here on the Peninsula as well as many around the Bay Area. Each agency recieves an annual allocation and must take steps to stay within it.
Periodic calls for Congress to fund a study on the removal of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir may never lead to action, but they are enough to make users reliant on this resource apprehensive.
A natural resource in such high demand will always be subject to some threats. Aside from terrorism (sabotage at the source, or to the pipe system), the most serious concerns are from nature itself.
The San Francisco PUC continues work to make the system . Also impossible to control but possible to prepare for are changes in regional weather patterns.
To have an adequate supply of water, we need snow in the right amounts and in the right months. As the predictably of these cycles decreases, so does the reliability of expectations.
These factors outside of local control make taking responsibility here at home even more important.
In the next two parts of this series, we’ll take a look at what Peninsula water agencies are doing to promote conservation and increase the supply of recycled water, and also what each of us can do in our own homes and workplaces.
A mild-mannered civil servant by day, Mary Bell Austin uses her time away from her environmental work for, well, environmental play. Her adventures in healthy eating and her explorations into the wider green world can be found at Bite-size Green. Her column appears biweekly on Saturdays.