Water Wars and the Frog in Boiling Water

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is not just a water agency.  It owns the Hetch Hetchy water system, generates electric power from the system, and sells both water and power to agencies in Alameda, Santa Clara, and San Mateo counties.

In April 2017, SFPUC announced that residents in parts of the City would start receiving Hetch Hetchy water blended with groundwater.  The uproar was immediate and intense.  Not good that San Franciscans accustomed to pristine drinking water now faced a cocktail of nitrates and chromium.  Therefore, once again, the Nine-County Coalition would like to mention the Frog in Boiling Water Fable:

 For Information:  No frogs were harmed to make this video.

 For Information:  No frogs were harmed to make this video.

“The boiling frog is a parable describing a frog being slowly boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.”

Not that this fable necessarily describes what a frog would really do – apparently studies differ, as noted in the Wikipedia article quoted above.  However, the metaphor is indisputable:  the slower events are caused to develop, the more successful their objectives.
Back in 2004, the Reason Foundation published a policy brief called Western Water Wars – Efforts to take over San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy Systems.  In this brief, Bryan Browne, a San Francisco economist specializing in water resource issues, lists a number of legislative changes that could be described as equivalent to slowly turning up the heat on a frog.

By 2002, Hetch Hetchy was in great need of retrofitting and repairs.  Bay Area water-related agencies and organizations were determined to band together to take action, and to find money with which to fund action – one way or another.

“Overshadowing and also interwoven into this regionalization and funding debate are the real issues of the system retrofit and repair due to normal wear and tear and the very present threat of earthquakes and other natural catastrophes.”

“To acquire/transfer an asset there are three established methods for assessing its value: (1) historical costs, (2) replacement costs, and (3) capitalized value of the net income stream. It appears that in Northern California possibly a fourth method is being used: acquisition/transfer by legislative actions.”

The laundry list of changes evidences not only attempts at asset acquisition by legislative action, but also at power acquisition.  The less voters have a say, the greater the chances of bureaucratic power achieving its objectives.  

“In San Francisco the year 2002 was a tumultuous ballot season leading up to the passage of city Propositions A, E, and P. There is a thread running through Propositions A and E and legislation AB2058, AB1823, and SB1870 that one might find difficult to see as casual.”

The tumultuous activity is difficult to see as casual, and not difficult to see as causal.  

*  AB 2058 created a district that San Francisco could join and cede 70% of its governance of Hetch Hetchy.  The district was empowered to issue bonds without voter approval.

*  AB 1823 directs the SFPUC to perform a number of improvements to Hetch Hetchy by certain deadlines [SFPUC says these mandated improvements are 91% complete].

*  SB 1870 created the San Francisco Bay Area Regional Water System, also known as the Regional Funding Authority (RFA).  No voter approval is necessary for debt created by this authority.

*  San Francisco Proposition A granted the SFPUC funding authority to issue $1.6 billion in revenue bonds.  It also said that RFA could fund suburban (non San Francisco) projects.

*  Proposition E removed voters’ charger right to approve revenue bonds.

*  Proposition P formed the Revenue Bond Oversight Committee, a committee of appointed members.

What has not changed is that after all this legislative mayhem, SFPUC still owns and is responsible for Hetch Hetchy.  What has changed is that voters gradually lost their say so.  However, this tale is an evolving one.  Will voters allow further erosion of their rights?  Will voters assert their rights and require District Supervisors to get the City’s pristine Hetch Hetchy water back?