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Amid drought, S.F.'s water remains pristine

Updated: Jan 4, 2022

"They fill their toilet bowls with water that’s cleaner than we drink.”

June 12, 2015

Keith Arnold, left, and Ian Moore start off their weekend backpacking trip as they hike by Hetch Hetchy Reservoir June 12, 2015 in Yosemite National Park, Calif. The 117-billion-gallon reservoir supplies water to millions of Bay Area residents. Leah Millis/The Chronicle

The pipelines that carry water from the Sierra to San Francisco run directly under the walnut groves of the president of the California Farm Bureau.

Paul Wenger marvels at the gravity-fueled system that takes pristine water from the Hetch Hetchy Valley of Yosemite National Park, infamously dammed by the city nearly a century ago, all the way to the bay without a single pump.

San Francisco does little wastewater recycling, enough to cover some golf courses, although it has plans to build its own recycling plant soon.

Wenger’s house outside Modesto, and those of his sons and neighbors, run on septic tanks that restore wastewater to the ground.

“We reuse water, reuse water, reuse water,” Wenger said. “What comes out of our well was somebody else’s leach water out of their septic tank.”

He said he once suggested that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission “put their water in the Tuolumne River, let the fish swim in it and the ducks swim on it, and help keep salinity out” of the delta. “You’d have thought I asked to sleep with their wife or their mother.”

Commission spokesman Tyrone Jue said San Francisco contributes 1 percent of total delta flows from the Tuolumne River, which he said is proportional to what the city diverts from the river in Yosemite.

“We’ve heard criticisms that people want San Francisco to do more,” Jue said. “We’re doing it proportional to what we’re actually diverting.”

He said San Francisco plans to build a water recycling plant on the west side of the city next year that will produce 2 million gallons a day. That’s out of the 200 million gallons its Bay Area customers use.

Wenger, who is battling urban sprawl in his own backyard, said the California Farm Bureau has even sued its own members to stop them from planning subdivisions that increase demand for water. He thinks San Francisco could help more.

“This is what gets me,” Wenger said. “Where is the NRDC’s offices, the Natural Resources Defense Council that criticizes us? San Francisco. Where are all the Save the Rivers, Save the Tuolumne? Where are their offices? San Francisco. They fill their toilet bowls with water that’s cleaner than we drink.”

— Carolyn Lochhead

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead


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