SF Mayor Newsom dives into water negotiations

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, a candidate for governor, has gotten involved in water negotiations around the Capitol, seeking to protect the water rights enjoyed by his home town while also staying on the same page with major environmental groups.

Newsom is just one of many local officials who have been involved both publicly and privately around the water question. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, for instance, sent a letter to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on Oct. 9 urging more emphasis on “statewide conservation efforts” in any water deal.

However, Newsom appears to have gotten more directly involved in negotiations. He’s also running for governor next year, though polls show him trailing Attorney General Jerry Brown for the Democratic nomination.

Newsom participated in a conference call on Oct. 16 led by Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. Other participants, either on the phone or in Steinberg’s office, included Natural Resources Defense Council California advocacy director Ann Nutthoff, Senator Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and representatives of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC)and Environmental Defense Fund.

According to multiple sources, Newsom had two goals in mind. First, he wanted to make sure that the SFPUC, which serves 2.5 million customers in and around San Francisco, would continue to get the same amount of water under any deal. Second, he wanted to help unite the SFPUC with environmental groups, who are concerned with getting enough water to the Delta to help restore the region’s damaged ecosystem. SFPUC manages San Francisco’s water system.

“Mayor Newsom believes it is in the best long-term interests of San Francisco and the Bay Area’s water reliability to achieve a statewide solution to the Delta crisis,” said Nathan Ballard, Newsom’s communications director, in a statement. He added, “Mayor Newsom has been working closely with our water agency, legislators and legislative staff and environmental interests in Sacramento in recent days to support a new bill that addresses San Francisco and many other communities’ concerns. Those negotiations continue and we remain optimistic that California can achieve a fair and comprehensive solution to the Delta crisis.”

The SFPUC and the region it serves occupy an usual place in California’s water system. For one thing, San Francisco is the envy of many other cities. It secured a reliable source of water a century ago—the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. Drawing on the Tuolumne River, San Francisco is one of a relatively small group of “upstreamers,” those who get their water before it ever gets to the Delta, the area that has become ground zero in the California’s water wars.

“It’s normal for a San Francisco mayor to protect that city’s very unusual water rights,” said Charlotte Hodde, water program manager for the Planning and Conservation League, an environmental group that opposes the water deal that has been taking shape in the legislature, largely under the direction of Steinberg and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

San Francisco’s case also illustrates many of the issues that could make it difficult for the legislature to pass a water plan. The effort by environmental groups to ensure minimum Delta flows would essentially add a new water right on what is already sometimes an oversubscribed system.  

“It’s no secret that the San Francisco PUC has voiced concerns relative to its existing water rights,” Sen. Leno said. He added that attorneys for the groups involved are going to have “subsequent meetings.”

The SFPUC is also in the middle of a debate about the conservation plan forming as part of the water deal. According to a report Wednesday in the Fresno Bee, the plan will call for a 20 percent reduction in water use statewide by 2020. But water districts that have already taken significant conservation efforts might get off with only a 5 percent reduction.

San Francisco is the most efficient urban water user in the state, according to Tony Winnicker, a spokesman for the SFPUC. It has reduced use by at least 12 percent per year each of the last three years, he said. Current water use is 57 gallons per person per day, compared to a statewide average of 155 gallons statewide. In 2002, voters in the region passed a $4.6 billion upgrade to the reservoir, which among other things addressed leakage in the system.

“From our perspective, the mayor’s involvement has helped bring us to a table in a way that we weren’t necessarily before, and is helping bring us closer to a comprehensive Delta solution that’s fair and addresses our concerns,” Winnicker, said. “We think that’s good for the Bay Area and good for California.”

Winnicker also noted that the SFPUC diverts about 1 percent of the water that would otherwise go into the Delta—an important point, according to Newsom spokesman Ballard.

“San Francisco is willing to contribute money and/or water to aid the failing Delta ecosystem, but costs and contributions should be assessed equitably, transparently and in proportion to a city’s impact on the Delta and the benefits it receives from any new infrastructure” he said.

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: