ULI San Francisco Blog

Is California’s Water Supply Tapped Out?

The ULIsf East Bay Programs Committee hosted an eye-opening discussion on water in the Bay Area on October 1, 2013 in Oakland, titled Tapped-Out? Water Supply Challenges and Bay Area Growth.

Jim Fiedler, COO of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, served as moderator. The four people on this illustrious panel were: Matt Regan, Bay Area Council of Public Policy; Bill Kirkpatrick, Engineering Manager, East Bay MUD; Steven Ritchie, Assistant General Manager, Regional Water Control Board; and Bry Sarte, author, engineer, and artist associated with the Sherwood Institute.

The evening panel kicked off with some lighthearted ribbing between several of the panelists, who were all either Stanford or Cal Alumni. Once the program was underway, it was clear that these professionals have extensive experience and understanding of California water conveyances, climate issues, aging infrastructure, and usage.

Some Water Infrastructure Facts:

  • There are 11 Water Agencies in the SF Bay Area
  • 1/3 of the Bay Area water is local and 2/3 is imported
  • Santa Clara and Alameda Counties are projected to increase usage by 30% over the next 20 years
  • Bay Area water storage and conveyance is anticipated to be sufficient through 2035, after which water needs are expected to rise above current levels
  • Urban uses cost $2,000/ acre-foot, with agricultural interests are paying $40/acre-foot; though usage is flipped, with about 20% for the former and 80% for the latter.

The most impacted water issue water is the fragile conveyance, from Shasta and the Sierra through the Sacramento Delta, which acts like a giant sponge.  Diminishing snow packs with mostly rain, not snow, projected for the future, means water storage facilities will be needed to catch water earlier each spring. Moreover, a major earthquake could cause big failures in the delta with its aging levies and the older pipelines.

Water Infrastructure Costs Are Legion:
Replacement of aging pipes, construction of new storage facilities, upsizing inadequately sized pipes, and shoring up existing structures against earthquakes all need to be balanced and prioritized in relation to available funding.

Water Management Going into the Future
Bay Area Water Agencies are aware that water pipes are aging differently with some older pipes in better shape than new ones.  Each agency is monitoring water pipes and replacement is being prioritized. Demand management is looking at ways to encourage conservation with tiered pricing and increased efficiencies. Rationing is also being considered when supplies run low.

Managing existing watersheds efficiently, and finding new supplies with construction of new water storage facilities are key. Regulatory changes, such as Title 24 which helps reduce demand with low-flow toilets, reduction of water intensive landscape in public spaces, etc., are being implemented.

Real estate developers are aware that reduced water capacities negatively affects development, and most are working with local agencies to solve future water issues. For example, mixed-use development increases demand, but also provides efficiencies. Another example involve site design by integrating water systems into buildings, linking buildings with storage, as was done in the new SFPUC building in SF.

Use of grey water in toilets needs regulatory changes to be allowed.  Ultimately “direct potable reuse” (putting treated water directly into pipes) is being studied.

The long view is that water agencies, in working with real estate developers, architects, land planners and engineers, are optimistic. With vigilance, appropriate site planning, and technological advances, water is available for development the foreseeable future in the Bay Area.

Authored by: Melissa A. Holmes, Holmes & Associates

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