The Bay Area loses about 23 billion gallons of water a year because of old, leaky water pipes. That’s enough to supply more than 70,000 families for a year. It’s an enormous waste in a time of drought, and the aging infrastructure is vulnerable to natural disaster. After this week’s earthquake, water main breaks left hundreds without water for days. What would happen in a bigger quake? We check in with water experts about the Bay Area’s aging infrastructure and what’s being done to fix it.

Lisa Krieger, science writer for the San Jose Mercury News
Xavier Irias, director of engineering and construction for the East Bay Municipal Utility District
Heather Cooley, water program director at the Pacific Institute, a water policy think tank
Steven Ritchie, assistant general manager for water at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission

  • Liz

    Utility districts in the past have always said that they needed the rate hikes for maintenance and it is clear that the money wasn’t used for that purpose so what happened to all that money? What guarantees are in place that any money received in the future is going to be used for repairs and maintenance? It all sounds good on the surface but I am not convinced that any real meaningful repairs and maintenance will be happening.

    • We need to hold our elected officials at these utilities accountable for coming up with sound financing plans to overhaul our 50-100 yr old systems. More than that we need to be thinking about how to do this in a climate smart way….double trenching for recycled water pipes, advancing grey water and storm water capture and use so that we can downsize waste water pipes and making sure that new development is predicated in the latest in efficient water use. If we do this right, we can get by with using half as much treated drinking water as we do today within a couple of decades without making huge sacrifices. Remember when California first established a recycling goal and no one said it could be done? I’m running for EBMUD Director this November to help lead the way on these important challenges and you can hold me to that.

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    In the aftermath of an earthquake, the SF PUC has a 72-hour emergency plan. But earthquakes can knock out pipes in the City for longer than 72 hours – what is the plan then?

  • Momma KAC

    How can the 49er’s new stadium be allowed to plant such a massive amount of turf during such a severe drought? How will it be irrigated to NFL standards? Presuming the pipes are leak-proof, who monitors for leaks in such a water guzzler system? It seems like big money (Levi’s) can afford the water usage, but the supply for the rest of the area dwindles.

    • Robert Thomas

      The 49ers website includes this note from its sustainability page

      The stadium will use reclaimed water for both potable and non-potable uses such as the playing field irrigation water.
      I think this has been mentioned many times during the design and construction of Levi’s stadium.

      I can tell you from having spent decades working and recreating in the area, the little bit of turf represented by that football field is a postage stamp compared to the former golf course being planned for development a few yards to the North; it wouldn’t surprise me that the parking lot burms displaced by the stadium used a substantial fraction of the water that the field would.

      The general vicinity, across the street from the Santa Clara convention center, widely employs “purple pipe” water for landscape use in all new development.

      • Momma KAC

        Good to know. Thanks for the link. It is fascinating to know how large venues/campuses/business parks use and reuse water resources.

      • thucy

        Thanks for that, Robert.

      • ES Trader

        More important is to force them to relinquish both San Francisco and 49ers name …………………

  • Thomas

    Where does the 23 billion gallons of water actually go ? It seems that leaking water it is not really lost, but actually serves to replenish water tables in the Bay Area.

    • Robert Thomas

      I grew up near the Campbell percolation ponds on Los Gatos Creek. As a kid, I wondered why they were on that creek, in those places and not elsewhere (Coyote Creek, Guadeloupe River etc.). So I wrote a school paper on it (before the Internet protocol!). It’s a very complex system; water flowing into the ground one place may be returned to a useful aquifer but may be lost to Bay run-off if dumped a few hundred yards away.

      For the South Bay (other regions may have similar resources), there are neat interactive maps at the Watersheds page at the Santa Clara Valley Water District website:

      If you choose a watershed, interactive maps will dynamically overlay such features as

      Ground Water Subbasins
      Open Space
      FEMA Flood Zones
      HMP Catchments
      HMP Outfalls
      In-stream Dams
      Percolation Ponds
      Bodies of Water
      Sliding Zones
      Potential Source Water Protection

      ”HMP” is “Hydromodification Management Plan”.

  • ZA_SF

    Good discussion, but all this effort seems to only be addressing at most 20% of the state’s water use – aren’t there bigger conservation opportunities in agriculture?

    • Ranjeet Tate

      This is the “think small” approach to any conservation issues that the US and the Bay Area is really good at – look at marginal, individual action based approaches as opposed to looking for and tackling the big low hanging fruit.

    • ArnoldLayne

      Is 20% remotely insignificant ? I thought ag allotments were already cut?

      • ZA_SF

        If it’s taken 4 years to even begin to deal with the Dumbarton leak, we can certainly look at other opportunities in the “80%” share of the state to save water sooner.

        As for the surface water share cuts, that leaves senior water rights holders unaffected, and encourages an even greater groundwater withdrawal problem.

    • thucy

      yes, but agriculture actually serves a purpose, unlike your lawn and my not-quite-short-enough shower

      • ZA_SF

        That’s a subjective value. I should add I’m not positing mutually exclusive positions either.

        When it comes to the state’s agriculture, we can seriously ask whether there’s enough drip irrigation, if wheat is preferable to triticale, whether Wisconsin can’t carry more of the nation’s dairy burden, and whether supplying the majority of the world’s almonds is wise use of our arid waters.

        • thucy

          Those are reasonable questions, and they will no doubt be addressed as the drought continues.
          However, it seems apparent if not obvious that humans need to get their food from somewhere, and therefore agriculture is not entirely without value. I would strenuously argue that lawns have zero value in California’s arid climate. Similarly, the add’l gallons I waste in a longer shower serve no recognizable purpose.
          We can all do better. But blaming agriculture across the board, which you are not doing but which many seem to think is an excuse not to look at their own need to conserve, isn’t responsible.

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    Why did you powers-that-be wait so long to impose water use restrictions when the drought has known about for so long? I have a neighbor that waters his dumb lawn daily, such that the water runs down the sidewalk for 20 feet. Why the heck do you bureaucrats move so slowly in this crisis? Are lawns so important?

    • Because the finances and budget of the water system is based on usage. They, the water managers are hesitant to curtail usage because it would also cut the budget they need to operate. Pipes/salaries need to be maintained water or no.
      Also, there is pandering to the higher powers that be. It is politically unpalatable to say “no more growth”. Therefore – they will continue to hand out building permits. All the water that YOU conserve (drought and all) they are just going to hand to a developer building a multi-family residential project.

      • Addendum:
        Any resource, renewable or finite — No amount of conservation, no matter how tightly you conserve, can long compete against increasing population numbers. Increasing population quickly overcomes any amount of conservation that you would care to imagine.
        I’ve worked through the equations on this. I have papers pending peer review in several physics journals.

        Dr. Gary Rutledge

  • Skip Conrad

    Comment on the use of ground water within SF beginning in 2015. It will no longer be the best water in world.

    • Skip Conrad

      “People can’t tell the difference”!!!!!

      Speak for yourself, dude. What you mean to say, perhaps, is that “you” can’t tell the difference. Pretty lame comment.

  • James Reynolds

    I’ve heard that fracking puts vast amounts of water so deeply underground that it becomes more or less permanently inaccessible. In just about every other scenario, including waste and contamination water can conceivably be recovered thru natural evaporation/precipitation cycles.

  • Steven theAmusing

    Levi’s Stadium is watered with recycled water:
    The stadium will use reclaimed water for both potable and non-potable uses such as the playing field irrigation water.

  • alansanmateo

    Please ask the agencies to use the ALS challenge as a way to teach us how we can conserve water in our everyday lives.

    Yes, the ALS challenge uses water, but I harvest the cold water from my shower as it warms. If each ALS challenger adopted this, we would be WAY ahead of the game.

  • Susan Reneau

    What percentage of CA communities do not meter water usage?

  • ES Trader

    the panelist did not really answer the caller’s question re: pipelines to re-distribute a scarce resource.

    Her remark that water is heavy ignores the fact that crude oil or shale viscosity is greater and yet its piped from Canada to the Gulf.

    Surely water is both safer and easier to pipe !

    More water in California will fuel more population growth and all the luggage associated with it but why can’t/won’t it be possible?

  • evjuice

    I heard that there are dozens of desalinization plants along the CA coast that are built and not on-line because of bureaucratic and political holdups. Can we do a story on that waste / crime?

  • Rich Holmer

    I am on the Board of Directors of a small water system that serves about 2500 customers. Our system is very old and was poorly constructed when it was built to serve what were primarily summer homes. It suffers from substantial leakage. We have been slowly upgrading the system in the areas with the highest amounts of leakage but suffered a severe setback with upgrades to the system when redevelopment money was cut. Since then we have developed a financial plan that allows a significant construction project every two years. At that rate, it will take a long time to completely upgrade our system. If the State is serious about conserving water, they should be looking into providing financial assistance to water systems with significant leakage.

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