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The San Francisco Chronicle

Wednesday, January 23, 2002


Hetch Hetchy fix-it bill / Lawmakers pressure S.F. over Hetch Hetchy / Assembly
bill gives deadlines to fix water system or lose it
Robert Salladay
Chronicle Sacramento Bureau
E-mail Robert Salladay at

A bill by two Peninsula lawmakers would require San Francisco to make immediate repairs to the crumbling Hetch Hetchy water system and could eventually lead to a takeover of the utility.

The new measure puts the Legislature in the middle of a long-standing fight between San Francisco, which controls Hetch Hetchy, and authorities on the Peninsula and in Silicon Valley who say the city is doing a dismal job of protecting their water supply from catastrophe should a major earthquake occur.

The Assembly measure, AB1823, sets specific dates for San Francisco to finish nine major repair projects along Hetch Hetchy, including to dams and pipelines near seismic faults. And it paves the way for the state Public Utilities Commission to eventually set wholesale water prices and for a new regional agency to take control of the entire Hetch Hetchy system.

"The citizens served by the regional water system will no longer stand idly by and pay the brunt of costs to use a decaying and poorly managed, yet critical infrastructure," said Assemblyman Lou Papan, D-Millbrae, who introduced the bill this week with Assemblyman Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto.

The Hetchy Hetch water system, which stretches from Yosemite Valley to the Bay Area, is nearly a century old and needs an estimated $4.4 billion in upgrades and seismic repairs. It serves 2.4 million people in San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda counties.

But the system is controlled entirely by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which is appointed by Mayor Willie Brown. The fact that nearly two-thirds of Hetch Hetchy users live outside of San Francisco has been a source of irritation to Peninsula and South Bay officials. The Bay Area Water Users Association, which represents the 29 agencies that buy water from Hetch Hetchy, supports the new measure.

Papan and Simitian have an uphill job in the Legislature, although any fight with San Francisco is bound to help build prestige in their own districts. Mayor Willie Brown still enjoys influence in the Legislature, and Senate leader John Burton, D-San Francisco, already is expressing doubts about supporting the bill.

"It doesn't seem like something I'd stay up nights wanting to support," Burton said yesterday.

Officials with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which controls Hetch Hetchy, said yesterday they were working quickly to approve repairs to a system they acknowledge needs major work. The commission is scheduled to consider a 10-year plan at its meeting next Tuesday.

"Their point is well taken. We need to get moving, and we are moving," said spokeswoman Beverly Hennessey, who likened fixing the 167-mile system, while still delivering water, to "rebuilding an airplane that is already in flight."

Broadly, the Assembly measure would declare "statewide concern" over Hetch Hetchy and require repairs to specific projects to ensure a safe water supply for up to 60 days after a major earthquake.
Completion dates for the projects range from 2004 to 2011.

It also would require San Francisco to "treat all customers fairly" when distributing available water after a catastrophe. And it would require the city to make the delivery of water its first priority -- rather than diverting water for electricity generation -- as a safeguard against drought.

Significantly, the measure would shift control of wholesale water rates to the state PUC if the current contract between the 29 water agencies and the city is not renewed in 2009. The bill allows control of the infrastructure to shift to a regional water agency at that time as well.

Art Jensen, general manager of the Bay Area Water Users Association, said even if the commission adopts its plan next Tuesday, "adoption is only one step toward funding, and funding is only one step toward getting the work done."

"We think this bill provides some good incentive," Jensen said.

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