San Francisco Public Utilities Commission Promotes and Manages Sustainable ‘Water, Wastewater, and Power’ Systems

Laura Spanjian

A hybrid organization that acts as a vendor of retail water, wholesale water, wastewater, and power to various municipalities in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) is uniquely situated to make a broad impact on the sustainability practices of water and power utilities. In the following remarks, presented to the 2009 VerdeXchange Green Marketmakers Conference, SFPUC Assistant General Manager Laura Spanjian presents a list of the SFPUC’s many ambitious prgrams to build efficiencies and reduce the emissions of greenhouse gasses from the use of water and power in the Bay Area.

Laura Spanjian: I’m here today at the VerdeXchange Green Marketmakers Conference to talk about San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s (SFPUC) sustainable initiatives and hopefully to share ideas and tools that will enable you to implement some of these programs in your cities. I’m Laura Spanjian, and I work at the San Francisco PUC. We are the agency that really implements most of the sustainable initiatives in San Francisco. We are a unique agency. We provide retail water, wholesale water, and wastewater services to San Francisco, and power services to municipal government. We are a little bit of a hybrid. Many similar public agencies perform one or the other of these functions.

SFPUC provide 265 million gallons of water per day to about 2.5 million San Francisco and wholesale customers. Our water comes directly from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in the Yosemite Valley. Many of you have probably heard the controversy around the restoration of the valley. We work very hard to keep that area beautiful, pristine, and accessible. Even though there is water in a beautiful valley, we take care of it. We spend millions of dollars taking care of it and making sure that people can go up and enjoy it. Someday the useful life of that dam will be done and then, and only then, we can have a conversation about restoring the valley.

We are rebuilding our water system. We have a $4.5 billion repair and replacement program for our entire water system. We have been working very closely with environmentalists as we work to receive approvals for over 80 projects. One of the negotiation points that we worked on with the environmentalists was to not divert any additional water out of the Tuolumne River, which is the source of our water in the Hetch Hetchy Valley, even though our demand is increasing. We did that because we can decrease our demand with recycled water, conservation, ground water, and maybe even a desalination plant over the next ten years. If we can’t do it, we will sit down again with the environmentalists and keep talking. We are committed to diversifying our water supply, not only in San Francisco, but also for the Bay Area’s more suburban customers. They have more irrigation than we do. We need to be models in San Francisco so that they can do what we are doing.

We have begun to implement our ground water program; six wells that will provide over four million gallons per day (mgd). Our recycled water program has a couple of projects already in the pipeline. In the next few years we will be irrigating almost all of our golf courses and our large parks with recycled water. San Francisco is a little bit behind with recycled water. In Southern California, you are way ahead of us because you had to be. We’re really trying to step up to the plate and recycle our water, at least for most of our irrigation purposes.

A desalination plant—this is exciting. People have talked about desalination and though desalination is controversial in some environmental circles, we are moving forward on a pilot program in the Carquinez Straits that will permit us to receive about 71 mgd of water. We’re going to see if we can make it work. We need federal money for it, but, regardless, we would like to be able to implement it.

We take climate change very seriously. We took the lead on starting WUCA—the Water Utility Climate Alliance. It is a grouping of large cities that are dealing with climate change issues. A lot of them are on the coast. Everyone is talking about climate change, but a lot of the talk is about how to stop climate change from getting worse or how to make it stop happening. We are a wastewater, water, and power utility. We need to assume that climate change is happening and then figure out how we are going to change what we are doing, what we are building, and how we are planning to deal with climate change. It’s not as sexy as stopping climate change but, in our opinion, it is very important. We want more money for climate change research. Right now the research is too global. It’s difficult to determine how climate change is going to affect San Francisco versus San Diego, because the cities are very different. Right now the models cannot tell us that. We really want to work on tools for adapting to climate change so that we can provide accurate data to water utilities all across the U.S.

We have ramped up our rebate program for water conservation. We give rebates for everything now, and we will not stop. We are trying to encourage people to install low-flow toilets, low-flow showerheads, etc. With our outreach program we have had a sharp increase in the amount of devices requested from our agency. We launched a high-efficiency toilet program in low-income neighborhoods. We found that in low-income neighborhoods, even with the rebates, they were not able to install low-flow toilets. We received a grant and we are installing low-flow toilets in some of our housing projects. We launched a $2.5 million conservation public outreach campaign called, “Water Saving Heroes.” We have a great website. You can check it out anytime. We did cable television, billboards, newspaper ads, and we were able to show that water use did decrease during the time we had this conservation campaign. It was a nine county effort that we led. We also conduct eco-fairs all over the city. We call them, “The Big Blue Bucket.” We give out free fixtures and tools like water rakes and rain barrels to encourage water conservation.

We are working with our commercial and residential realtors on retrofit on resale legislation. It has been controversial in our city for a long time, but we are close to passing a piece of legislation that will mandate the installation of low-flow toilets, showerheads, and faucets when you sell a house. People will have to replace their older devices. We went to the commercial building owners and told them we wanted to do the same thing on the commercial side. They said they would absolutely oppose it. But we were able to negotiate with them to mandate installation of low-flow devices when they retrofit a floor on a commercial building, or by 2017. They said, “Listen, we have new tenants coming in all the time. We do repairs then. It would be fine for us to do a repair or to take out a toilet while we are repairing a floor. How about we do that?” We thought that worked. And it is a big win for our utility to have a guarantee that all old fixtures will be replaced by 2017.

We are also ensuring that our city government conserves water. We have a municipal program to audit every department to ensure that they are conserving water. We banned bottled water in city government, and launched a voluntary ban in San Francisco restaurants. We are working with the U.S. Council of Mayors to encourage other cities to also ban bottled water use.

Moving to our wastewater program: We have implemented a recycled bio fuel program. It’s called “SF Greasecycle.” We pick up grease from restaurants and we turn it into bio fuel. It’s a wonderful program. In just a few months we have already had 500 restaurants sign on. We have a brown grease program also. It’s not just french fries that might run your bus. It’s also the gross brown stuff that sticks to the bottom of a trap. We want to turn that into bio fuel as well.
We are doing great work on low-impact development. We are one of two cities in California that has a combined sewer system where all of the water, including stormwater, actually goes into the sewer system to be treated. We are trying to reduce stormwater with rain barrels and low-impact development. We are giving incentives to residents to pull out their pavement, their cement, and put in low impact development such as plants or materials that absorb water.

On the energy side we are very committed to municipal solar. We have two megawatts now but we are working to build five megawatts as part of a power purchase agreement, bringing us up to seven megawatts. We put solar panels on all of our wastewater treatment plants to reduce their energy costs. We also put them on a lot of our schools and the airport. We also have a solar incentive program. We don’t only provide incentives for low flow fixtures or low-impact development, we also do it for solar. We are giving money to residents to put solar on their homes. We believe in the government being a tipping point. Right now residents receive a federal rebate and a state rebate, but that’s not enough. People weren’t putting solar on their homes in San Francisco. When the SFPUC provided a local rebate, solar installations shot up, with $1.5 million being requested in only four months. We are going to put another $1.5 million into the program. It has been a huge success—GoSolarSF.

We also believe strongly in energy efficiency. We are helping city departments, particularly high energy users such as the airport and the convention center, reduce their energy demand. And we are installing LED lights in San Francisco to reduce the energy usage of streetlights.

And we are working to tie all of our sustainable ideas together in our Civic Center. It’s called the Civic Center Sustainable District and we want to have the Civic Center be a model to show people low-impact development, solar, wind, etc. We are working with businesses and city departments on reducing the footprint of the Civic Center, which comprises about seven buildings.

The other sustainable programs we have implemented in San Francisco that are a little outside of water, wastewater, and power, include recycling. Our recycling rate is off the charts, with a 70 percent recycling rate. We hope to have zero waste by 2020. We have a green business program. We have a green building ordinance for new development. And we banned plastic bags and styrofoam.

Thanks for your interest in Sustainable San Francisco!