San Francisco: Save the river you drink from

Kate Poole and John McManus via

San Francisco rightly prides itself on being an environmental leader. Given this deep commitment to protecting the environment, the city’s water agency — the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission — should be a leader in smart, sustainable water policy. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. But Mayor London Breed now has a once-in-a-decade chance to turn the SFPUC in a new direction by appointing a progressive, visionary new general manager who reflects the city’s values.

San Francisco’s Bay-Delta ecosystem and the Central Valley rivers that feed it are in steep decline, suffering from unsustainable freshwater diversions and habitat destruction. The city gets its water from one of these rivers, the Tuolumne, which flows from Yosemite National Park to the bay.

The science is clear that the Tuolumne and its native fish and wildlife will never recover without leaving more water in the river. Other water agencies around the state have shown how San Francisco can thrive while taking less water from the Tuolumne by investing in smart, 21st century water tools like water recycling — tools that also improve our adaptation to climate change and resilience to drought, while protecting wildlife. But here again, the SFPUC lags far behind.

Instead of leading efforts to restore the Tuolumne River, for years, the SFPUC joined forces with the Trump administration and anti-environmental Central Valley agricultural water districts to oppose strengthening environmental protections. Even now, the SFPUC failed to object while their partners urged the Trump administration, on its final day in office, to block stronger requirements for the Tuolumne River proposed and supported by the state of California. Recently, the acting general manager of the SFPUC threatened to seek special treatment from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office if the state moves forward with modest updates of wholly inadequate 25-year-old environmental protections.

San Franciscans have always supported doing our part to protect the environment. It is disgraceful that a city agency acts in our name to promote policies that wipe out our native salmon runs, kill the river that supplies us with drinking water, and undermine the fishing industry that created Fisherman’s Wharf. It is even more disturbing that the SFPUC stood idly by while its partners urged the Trump administration to block environmental protections for fish and wildlife in the river and downstream waters.

The SFPUC can and should do more to protect the bay, our salmon industry and the jobs and communities it supports. Breed must lead this charge by appointing a reform-minded general manager to replace recently indicted Harlan Kelly. This position should be held by a leader who reflects San Francisco’s values, including protecting the environment, adhering to science and the law in supporting more balanced diversions for the Tuolumne and the Bay-Delta, and investing in new, climate-resilient water supply tools.

In short, instead of partnering with the Trump administration and anti-environmental forces in the Central Valley, it’s about time that the SFPUC partners with its own community. We stand ready to work with that new leader.

Kate Poole is the water lead for the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. John McManus is president of the Golden State Salmon Association.