Project puts San Francisco's pristine tap water at risk

  • by Christopher L. Bowman
  • Wednesday May 3, 2017
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Project puts San Francisco's pristine tap water at risk

In the February 21 San Francisco Chronicle, Kurtis Alexander reported that San Francisco's tap water would soon be getting a new ingredient - groundwater from the city's Westside Aquifer. Fast-forward two months.

On April 24, Jeff Gilman, manager for the city's groundwater supply project, announced at a public forum that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission had just turned on the spigot a few days earlier. Today, more than 50 percent of the city served by the Sunset, Sutro, and Summit reservoirs is receiving a mixture of lower quality groundwater and pristine water from the Hetch Hetchy Regional Water and Power System.

Currently, groundwater comprises only 1.25 percent of the mix, but by the end of 2020, groundwater will constitute 15 percent of the tap water distributed by the three reservoirs. Although the reservoirs where the blended water will be stored are located west of Twin Peaks, a number of neighborhoods on the eastside of the city are getting the groundwater mix.

In District 8, the businesses, bars, restaurants, and residences on both sides of Castro Street will receive blended water, as will those located east of Twin Peaks and in Dolores Heights, Noe Valley, Glen Park, and part of Diamond Heights. (A map of which streets will receive the blended water supply can be found at

Alexander, in his article, reported that nitrates, which "can make people ill when consumed in large quantities, have been detected in the (Westside) aquifer at levels exceeding the state EPA's (maximum contamination level) standards. The compound is believed to have infiltrated (into the groundwater) from leaky sewage pipes and fertilizers."

According to a UC Davis study .about nitrate in groundwater, "Nitrate in drinking water, at high levels, causes 'blue baby syndrome' or methemoglobinemia. This is an acute illness that can occur in unborn infants and young children (under the age of six months). It leads to low blood oxygen levels and possibly suffocation. In adults, long-term exposure to high nitrate levels in drinking water is potentially also associated with thyroid dysfunction and cancer. . ."

An information sheet on groundwater and nitrate created by the State Water Resources Control Board's Division of Water Quality adds that, "Infants with (the symptoms of 'blue baby syndrome') need immediate medical care since the condition can lead to coma and eventual death. Pregnant women are susceptible to methemoglobinemia... (and) according to the EPA, long-term exposure to water with high nitrate levels may cause dieresis, increased starchy deposits, and hemorrhaging of the spleen. People with heart or lung diseases are more susceptible to the toxic effects of nitrates. . ."

If Alexander's story wasn't alarming enough, three days later Tara Duggan wrote an article in the Chronicle headlined "Will new water affect San Francisco's signature food and drink?" Duggan pointed out that there were concerns by "food and drink folks" that the groundwater's higher levels of bi-carbonates, total dissolved solids, and water hardness would adversely affect the flavor of the city's world famous craft coffees and beers, and the texture of bagels and bread.

These back-to-back articles came as quite a shock to many members of the public who were unaware about the city's under-the-radar groundwater supply project. Once they became aware of the project, many San Franciscans questioned why the SFPUC would spend $4.6 billion (paid for by trebling water rates) to retrofit and upgrade the Hetch Hetchy system so that San Francisco and our wholesale suburban customers would continue to receive a reliable and ample supply of pristine water (for which the city is renown) only to then spend $66,000,000 to degrade that water by adding contaminated groundwater.

Others wondered why it was necessary to add groundwater to our water supply at this time as the Sierras have received the highest snow pack since the 19th Century and Governor Brown has just declared that California's years-long drought was over!

Still others, including this author, who are long-term survivors of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, are alarmed about the excessive levels of nitrates, manganese, and other contaminants that have been repeatedly detected in test wells of our groundwater but that the groundwater to be blended with Hetch Hetchy water is undergoing only minimal treatment (for bacteria and viruses) and to maintain pH levels to prevent lead or copper poisoning.

Parasites such as Cryptosporidium, Toxoplasmosis, and Giardia Lamblia, which continue to wreak havoc on people with suppressed immunities, can be effectively treated only through filtration or exposure to Ozone or UV radiation. Such techniques are used by the Hetch Hetchy system at its Tesla, Sunol Valley, and Harry Tracy water treatment facilities, but the groundwater entering our water supply will not undergo any such treatment.

In response to public concerns and questions raised, Supervisor Norman Yee (District 7), called for a public hearing that will be held next month. The hope was that the SFPUC would refrain from turning on the spigot of its groundwater blending project until after the public and our elected representatives had had their say. Unfortunately, the SFPUC went ahead, anyway, hearing or no hearing.

The hearing is tentatively scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday, May 24, at City Hall before the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee. Supervisor Hillary Ronen (D9) is the committee chair, while Supervisor Jeff Sheehy (D8), who is gay and HIV positive, is the committee vice chair and Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer (D1) is the third member.

If you wish to have your voice heard, you can testify in person at the upcoming hearing, email your remarks to the committee, or email or call your district supervisor.

Christopher L. Bowman is a native San Franciscan, a voter in District 8, and a resident of the Twin Peaks neighborhood.