Other cities have hurricanes, wildfires and floods -- San Francisco has earthquakes. And nothing gets a major water project moving faster in northern California than a major quake, said Maureen Barry, spokesperson for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
An earthquake prompted the creation of the Hetch Hetchy system, and earthquakes (both the real one in 1989 and the prospective "Big One" that scientists from the United States Geological Survey say has a 62 percent chance of rattling the Bay Area before 2032) became catalysts for the current, $4.4 billion renovation.
After the 1906 earthquake reduced nearly 500 San Francisco blocks to rubble and left the city burning for three days, residents clamored for a sturdy, publicly owned water utility to replace the hodge-podge of water wagons, rudimentary pipe systems and small reservoirs that characterized the city's water system in the 19th century.
The current Water System Improvement Program -- the primary driver of the soaring wholesale costs -- was also born after a major earthquake. After the 1989 quake, San Francisco began working with a myriad of state and federal agencies on a comprehensive plan to improve the crumbling infrastructure and ensure that it stays intact if another big one hits.
Even wholesale customers, who use about two-thirds of the Hetch Hetchy water and would pay an equal proportion of the cost, jumped on board. Art Jensen, CEO of the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, said $4.4 billion only sounds expensive until you consider the consequences of not rebuilding the aging infrastructure. The agency he heads represents the 26 wholesale customers who purchase water from San Francisco.
"That the whole cost was going to double or triple is something that was known for a long time," Jensen said. "But we also know that the consequence of not doing WSIP is possibly going 60 days without water after an earthquake."
The high level of support the project has attracted from the myriad of stakeholders it will affect is in many ways unusual. Water officials were pleased to see that the environmental review for the project sailed through San Francisco's legislative process without a legal challenge -- a rarity for a project of this cost and magnitude.
"I think everyone agrees that this series of improvements is absolutely essential for the Bay Area," Klein said. "If we have a major earthquake and the Hetch Hetchy system broke, Palo Alto is one of many places that would be hit."
The grand project will become more visible on the Peninsula next spring, when water officials expect to begin construction of a new 9-mile pipeline that will stretch through the Peninsula into Menlo Park and East Palo Alto. The project -- approved by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission on July 14 -- is part of $597 million worth of work that also includes a new 7-mile tunnel in the East Bay and 5-mile tunnel under the San Francisco Bay.
Ed Harrington, general manager of the Public Utilities Commission, said these projects will improve the water system's ability to withstand an earthquake.
"The new pipeline and tunnel will serve as a lifeline, with seismically engineered fault crossings and tie-ins to existing facilities, ensuring that Bay Area customers will receive water following an earthquake," Harrington said in a news release announcing the newly approved projects.
The ambitious water program also includes at least a dozen other projects in the Peninsula area. These include building a water-transmission system between the Crystal Springs Reservoir, the San Andreas Reservoir and the pump station at the Harry Tracy Water Treatment Plant in San Bruno; seismic and electrical upgrades at the Harry Tracy plant, and a new 4,200-foot tunnel stretching along an existing tunnel on San Mateo County land, and bringing water in from the East Bay to the Crystal Springs Reservoir on the Peninsula.
Barry said the Water System Improvement Program will cover dozens of sections of the water system that haven't been repaired or even inspected in decades. It also entails installing redundant pipelines and tunnels to make sure people's water service remains uninterrupted during construction.
"The demand for water is so great that we can't just take pipes out of service," she said.