The water bubbles up at the Pulgas Water Temple near Cañada Road, a monument to a Herculean effort: moving massive amounts of water to the arid Bay Area from the Sierras.
On Oct. 28, 1934, the mountain waters roaring through the pipeline from Hetch Hetchy was a watershed event. Bay Area residents voiced a sense of security. There would never be another disaster such as the 1906 San Francisco fire, they said.
The water is abundant and clean, and 40 years later, it helped build a technological revolution in Silicon Valley. Its low-mineral content and purity became a necessity for chip making in the computer industry.
This fragile artery supplies water to one-third of the Bay Area's population -- nearly 2.5 million Bay Area residents. But officials at every level of government are worried about future water supplies. Earthquakes, competing demands, such as population growth, and potentially decreasing supply will put increasing pressure on the state's water system.
It's not so much a problem of a lack of available water, officials said -- although no one is sure how global warming will play out in the coming decades. Instead, a race is on to create the infrastructure to conserve, store and move it.
The question many are asking is: Can we get there in time?
On shaky ground
Until the 1960s, most Bay Area communities depended on ground water, according to Stanford University Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering David L. Freyberg. Switching to Hetch Hetchy was a boon to Bay Area communities. The water was plentiful and is considered among the cleanest on the planet. Its infrastructure was already paid for.
But today the system is decrepit -- more than 70 years old. The pipeline bringing water to the Bay Area crosses three earthquake faults. A big quake would knock portions of the system off line, water officials said.
A systemwide seismic retrofit is now in the works. But it won't be completed until at least December 2014, according to Michael Carlin, assistant general manager for water at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), which is rebuilding the system.
In the interim, the Bay Area remains vulnerable in the event of a disaster, public officials said. If a breakdown in the water supply were to occur, a fire like the one in 1906 after an earthquake could happen. And a cholera outbreak is a real possibility if water rationing were to kick in, at which point 2.4 million people wouldn't have water to flush toilets, Palo Alto City Councilmember Bern Beecham said.
Water rationing could also be disastrous for the Bay Area economy. Businesses that rely on water for manufacturing could be forced to close their doors, throwing many out of work.
"HP and the big-pocket companies will be OK, but the small businesses without global facilities to shift the load off to can't ever come back. It will be like New Orleans. It won't ever come back. It would permanently devastate the economy of the Bay Area," he said, citing a UCLA/State Department of Audits study.
Palo Alto and other cities are working to decrease their dependence on Hetch Hetchy, at least in the event of short-term water disruption. On Nov. 6, Palo Alto residents approved an advisory measure to build a 2.5-million-gallon emergency reservoir by 2012; and last December, the City of Mountain View completed a $19.6 million underground reservoir that holds 8 million gallons for emergency uses.
Palo Alto's emergency reservoir will provide enough drinking water for 30 to 60 days. And well water pumped from the underground aquifer could supply water for six months to 1.5 years, depending on how judiciously it is used, according to Beecham.
The City of Menlo Park is considering an emergency reservoir and may use groundwater for irrigating parks and other city plantings, Director of Public Works Kent Steffens said. East Palo Alto was at one time in negotiations with Menlo Park to partner on emergency storage, but creating a facility of sufficient size wasn't possible, he added.
Dwindling water, either from increased demand or drought, concerns Stanford University Utilities Director Michael Goff. Stanford has a three-day supply of potable water stored in two reservoirs. Five wells on campus and two lakes -- Felt and Searsville -- provide water for irrigation. But beyond emergency supplies, when it comes down to having enough potable water in an extended disaster, Goff said Stanford is tapped out.
The university's contingency plan might require some painful restrictions, such as curtailing academic research, he said.
"Those are real concerns. In a worst-case scenario, with a drought, we can't conserve much more," he added.
The coming decades
In the whole scheme of things, emergency supplies and even Hetch Hetchy itself will be a drop in the bucket, some officials said. Bigger questions loom about long-term water use, according to Palo Alto City Councilmember Larry Klein, Palo Alto's Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA) representative. BAWSCA represents 27 municipalities, water districts and companies in Hetch Hetchy water contracts.
"There's a bad-looking trend, looking forward. We won't have enough water storage available. It's a major concern for Palo Alto. We're in it with all of the sister jurisdictions," he said.
Snowpacks in the Sierras act like a natural reservoir by slowly releasing water as they melt, SFPUC's Carlin said. But models of global warming show less snow; and higher temperatures and more rain will cause melting earlier in the season. With nowhere to store the rapid runoff, the water will be lost, causing lower supplies in the summer months when the water is needed most, he said.
Eighty years of record keeping isn't enough to understand the Sierra snowfall patterns over geologic time, according to Beecham. No one knows what effect the changing climate will have on Sierra water over the long term, but experts said Sierra water will be increasingly unreliable. A 2006 California Department of Water Resources report estimates that global climate change could reduce the Sierra snowpack by 5 percent by 2030 and up to 33 percent by 2060.
At a Nov. 15 meeting of BAWSCA board members in Foster City, the agency's Chief Executive Officer Arthur R. Jensen tacitly summarized the problem during a current dry-year conditions report: "No rain, no snow."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposes a comprehensive water-infrastructure expansion, including building two new reservoirs. Sen. Joe Simitian is sponsoring a state bill to build a variation on the Peripheral Canal (which voters defeated in the 1980s), to send Sacramento River water around the San Joaquin Delta and deliver fresh water to the Bay Area and Southern California.
"They're talking about it. But we're talking huge money," Councilmember Klein said of the estimated $9 billion project.
In the coming decades, public officials and residents may be forced to make hard choices. The cost of goods will rise, including the food supply, and some water-dependent crops such as rice could be in short supply, according to agricultural reports.
The suburban landscape as known today may become extinct, replaced by native plants. Bay Area residents would do well to look toward the landscaping examples in Tucson and Phoenix, Ariz., where desert plants are used for landscaping, Stanford's Freyberg said.
Beecham wondered if water costs could ignite a class war. Questions will arise as to whether wealthy individuals will have rights to more water for landscaping and swimming pools because they can afford it, or if shortage will bring a more egalitarian approach, where everyone will be forced to conserve equally, he said.
"Have" and "have not" cities could also be pitted against each other. Palo Alto has more water allotments from Hetch Hetchy than it currently uses, but Redwood City's is disproportionately lower. During mandatory rationing, Palo Alto will have more wiggle room. Redwood City will feel cuts acutely, Beecham said.
A high-stakes game
A drama with long-term consequences could play out in the next year.
BAWSCA represents 27 agencies, including Palo Alto, Stanford, Menlo Park and Mountain View, in water contracts with San Francisco. Those contracts will expire in 2009. And while the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission will guarantee 184 million gallons of water per day to the 27 stakeholders, how that pie will be divided up remains unknown.
The City of Hayward projects a 28.8 percent increase in its water-purchase needs by 2030, and other cities, such as Mountain View and East Palo Alto, expect 5.8- to 6.7- percent increases, according to a 2006 SFPUC report.
Stanford is planning an expansion requiring an additional 1.5 million gallons beyond 2030, Goff said.
Palo Alto, however, predicts its needs will remain flat between now and 2030, in part because of growing conservation and use of water-efficient technologies, according to city officials.
As other cities grow, they may begin eyeing Palo Alto's extra units for their own uses.
Although Stanford officials did not say they would seek any of Palo Alto's allocations, the thought of where the university could possibly get extra Hetch Hetchy water did cross Goff's mind during a recent conversation.
"Palo Alto has extra allocations," he said.
Currently, there is no penalty for having excess unused water, but if BAWSCA members are forced to pay for allocations they aren't using, there could be incentive to voluntarily reduce those allotments, city officials said. Some cities might trade or potentially sell their excess, depending on how the new contract is structured, said Beecham, who was instrumental in forming BAWSCA.
BAWSCA has done a credible job for all 27 stakeholders in its negotiations with San Francisco and can negotiate a master contract, he added. But each city will ultimately negotiate a contract separately with San Francisco. It is feared that one or two cities could take a considerable amount of water. Theoretically, San Francisco could negotiate with them or play one off the other and leave others out, he said.
"There are concerns that we all need to work together. If we don't, we'll kill each other," Beecham said.
Conservation methods in the works
Regional collaboration and water-infrastructure upgrades aren't the only ways municipalities can plan ahead for a water shortage, officials note.
According to Palo Alto City Councilmember Peter Drekmeier, who is also program director for the Tuolumne River Trust, creative conservation solutions could help resolve disputes and stave off environmental disaster.
"We're arguing that there is tremendous potential for conservation and retention and recycling," he said. He pointed to Palo Alto's water recycling program, which treats used or so-called "gray" water from Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Stanford, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View. The water is processed at the Palo Alto Regional Water Treatment Plant on East Bayshore Road. Approximately 950 acre-feet of recycled water is currently used in Greer Park and the municipal golf course. It is moved by truck to irrigate roadside medians and in the duck pond and Bayland marsh for habitat enhancement, Palo Alto Assistant Director of Utilities for Resource Management, Jane Ratchye said. The rest goes out into the bay.
"Irrigation is the perfect use for recycled water," Drekmeier said.
Additional plans are in the works to expand the use of reclaimed water for business use. Palo Alto and Mountain View's recycled-water expansion plan includes a $15.9 million pipeline to 64 businesses along East Bayshore and down to Mountain View. The project broke ground Nov. 7. A third phase involves expanding another pipeline to Stanford Research Park, an expensive proposition that Ratchye said is a long way off.
Palo Altans pride themselves in being on the forefront of environmental sensitivity, but when it comes to water, they have one of the area's largest aquatic footprints, according to Beecham. Palo Alto is a verdant-green dot from a bird's-eye view. The city cares for more than 35,000 trees on its public properties, with countless more on private property. Landscaping is the single largest use of water -- and virtually all residential landscaping is watered with potable water, according to Ratchye. Recycled water could play a crucial role in relieving pressure from the Hetchy Hetchy system, but building pipelines to move it will cost many millions, and Ratchye predicts it will be hard for voters to swallow.
On a larger scale, agricultural conservation efforts have also proven successful, such as those developed on a larger scale in southern California, BAWSCA's Chief Executive Officer, Arthur R. Jensen wrote to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission on Oct. 18.
Other ideas are on the table both countywide and statewide, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission Assistant General Manager for Water Michael Carlin said. Creating a superhighway of emergency interties that allow water to be shifted from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, agriculture-to-urban transfers, banking water in the Central Valley at other water districts and limited use of underground supplies are all being considered.
While cities may look first to the groundwater that once served as their primary water source until the 1960s, it is limited. Drawing it down too far or too fast will create the same problems that contributed to its abandonment -- land subsidence and salt-water intrusion, Santa Clara Valley Water District Water Supply Manager Keith Whitman said.
Land subsidence occurs when water pumped out of the ground causes the land above it to permanently sink. Salt-water intrusion occurs when the layer of fresh water is either depleted or sucked down too fast and an adjacent layer of salt water is drawn into the fresh-water layer. Santa Clara Valley and three other Bay Area agencies are conducting a pilot study for a desalination plant in Antioch, creating fresh water from salt water. Another project is underway with the San Benito County Water District to reclaim water from its saline areas, he added.
Every scenario designed to solve the water problem will have its trade-offs, whether economic, social or environmental, officials agreed.
For Beecham, desalination plants exemplify the struggle at hand.
"I hate 'em. They are highly energy intensive. They use a lot of pressure and energy ... to push water through a membrane," he said.
That creates an additional dilemma "as we look at our carbon footprint," he added.