When it rains …

When it rains …

The cost of water

By Amanda Witherell

A few years ago my friend Andrew and I sailed a small boat to the northern Abaco region of the Bahamas, a shallow archipelago frequented by Palm Beach, Fla., sports fishers and vacationing couples on sailboats.

We made our first landfall on Walker’s Cay, and while Andrew paid the customs official for the cruising permit, I hosed salt off our decks and refilled our water tanks. I didn’t notice the fellow standing at the spigot, watching a meter, and it wasn’t until we’d fired up the engine and were untying the spring line that he handed us a bill for $30 worth of water.

We couldn’t pay it — after clearing customs, we had about $12 in cash between us — and the meter tender was livid. This was my first experience in a place where every house has a cistern, only the wealthy can afford the luxury of desalination, and dry spells mean costly shipments of water from the United States.

To Bahamians, water is almost more precious than wine. And yet they’re surrounded by it.

A scorched San Francisco faced a similar dilemma back in postquake 1906, and a series of savvy politicians laid the political piping that would eventually funnel a steady, cheap supply of drinking water to the city by damming the Tuolumne River at the Hetch Hetchy Valley near Yosemite.

It was ultimately way more than we needed, and most of the 225 million gallons of river water diverted daily is piped to 28 wholesale customers. The overdue upgrade to the Water System Improvement Plan is being orchestrated by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. But a joint study by the Tuolumne River Trust and the Pacific Institute has found several flaws in the plan.

While the SFPUC included conservation and efficiency when calculating a marginal decrease in San Francisco’s water use over the next 23 years, similar standards weren’t applied to the wholesale customers, who claim they will use 14 percent more — almost entirely for irrigation and landscaping. This could draw another 51 million gallons a day from the Tuolumne, the lower branch of which is already considered an impaired water body under the Clean Water Act.

Yet encouraging its suburban customers to conserve may not be in the financial interests of the SFPUC, which is pursuing $4.3 billion worth of repairs and upgrades, about two-thirds of which could be financed by tripling the price of water. The TRT-PI study argues that cost will be an incentive to conserve and concludes that a number of the SFPUC’s predictions are based on a continuation of people’s wasteful ways. It instead recommends that San Francisco set an example for its suburban neighbors and collaborate on efficiency and conservation measures.

Global warming will disrupt worldwide water cycles in unpredictable ways. Accordingly, the PI says one-third of urban water use can be cut employing existing technologies to recycle gray water and capture rainwater. We’re still flushing our toilets with the sweat of the Sierras while the California Department of Water Resources predicts that 33 percent less snowpack will melt into the Tuolumne over the next 50 years.

But people can adapt to such circumstances. Working with the premise of one gallon per person per day, Andrew and I got by: we washed our dishes in salt water and donned bathing suits when it rained, plugged up the drain in the cockpit so that it filled like a bathtub, and let the furls in the mainsail pour rinse water onto our heads.

During one memorable thunderstorm, several other boats sailed into a safe harbor where we’d anchored. Andrew was busy taking a rainwater shower while I washed a load of laundry in the cockpit, and it wasn’t until I was pinning our clothing up to dry on the lifelines that I noticed couples on the boats around us doing the same thing. It was comic to see, and heartening too, because we were doing it out of poverty, and they were doing it just because it looked like fun.

Or maybe because it was the right thing to do.

The SFPUC is still in the review stage of the plan and will hold hearings in September, at which the public may comment on our aquatic future.

Originally published August 8, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian