SF took cash that could have repaired Hetch Hetchy system

The Associated Press
Monday September 16, 2002


SAN FRANCISCO – San Francisco city officials diverted hundreds of millions of dollars from the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System and left the aging water system vulnerable to natural disasters and decay, a newspaper reported Sunday. 

The money that could have been used to repair the aging system was siphoned off to finance city programs and salaries, according to a report by the Chronicle in its Sunday edition. 

The lack of repairs to the water system come at a time when engineers warn that a large earthquake could cause enough damage to the Calaveras Dam in Alameda County to cut off most water to 2.4 million Bay Area residents for two months. 

Some now charge that the diversion of Hetch Hetchy funds constitutes mismanagement. 

“The politicians used the Hetchy system as a money machine in the basement of City Hall,” said Jim Chappell, president of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research. “For decades, there has been gross irresponsibility in the siphoning of funds clearly needed for Hetchy maintenance.” 

City records show that $670 million went to the San Francisco’s general fund and not to make repairs on any portion of Hetch Hetchy’s deteriorating system. The diversion of money to that city fund is legal, however, and the former head of the city’s Public Utilities Commission defended past expenditures that were made using Hetch Hetchy money. 

“There is nothing wrong in my view with using Hetchy power resource to generate money for the general fund, which pays for cops, parks and recreation and everything that people hold dear,” former San Francisco PUC chief Rudy Nothenberg told the Chronicle. 

There is a proposed fix that would mend some of the water system’s ailments. This fall, San Francisco voters will be asked to approve a $1.6 million bond measure that would cover the city’s costs of rebuilding the system. 

Overall, the Hetch Hetchy rebuilding and restructuring would cost $3.6 billion, with San Francisco’s suburban neighbors raising the balance through increased water bills over the next 13 years. 

During that period, San Franciscan’s water bills would triple. 

The Hetch Hetchy system consists of 167 miles of aqueduct and is more than 75 years old. It includes 21 reservoirs, 25 tanks, two pump stations and 40 miles of tunnels. 

Several warnings to repair portions of the decaying system have been ignored, the Chronicle reported. 

In 1987, a consultant to the city PUC faulted the agency for its lack of familiarity with the condition of the system and poor planning. Seven years later, city supervisors budget analyst Harvey Rose said the city PUC lacked the basic information to prioritize what had to be done to keep water flowing through the system. 

And three years ago experts examined the system and concluded a strong earthquake would cause massive failures throughout the Hetch Hetchy.