Believe it or not, San Francisco is flooded with underground sources of fresh, drinkable water. Much of it, however, is flushed away -- literally.
By Joe Eskenazi
“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.” – Mark Twain (probably)
Former San Franciscan Samuel Langhorne Clemens would be so disappointed with us. Here we are in the 21st century and we’ve yet to discover, here or anywhere, an underground supply of whiskey. And today, in 2007, the city’s vast subterranean reserves of water are, rather than being hotly fought over, either untapped or plugged directly into the sewer and pumped out to the Bay.
Sifting through arcane files in the San Public Library archives, writer Joel Pomerantz came across a recent letter of complaint from the sewer administrators to BART, imploring the rapid transit agency to pay its fair share.
“It turns out the area under Market Street has a lot of water flowing through it and the BART stations are threatened to be flooded all the time without pumping. The complaint said BART was pumping into the sewers without paying. Well, it turns out that’s potable water. It doesn’t even require treatment,” said Pomerantz at a recent panel discussion about the world of city water hosted by counterPULSE.
BART officials deftly reminded the sewer folks that Downtown stations are shared with Muni, a city agency – so part of that bill should be passed to the city of San Francisco as well. Needless to say, the matter was dropped. And yet BART continues to pump perhaps a million gallons or more a day of perfectly good water down the drain.
Pomerantz has spent so much time researching the city’s aquifers and underground streams it’s a wonder his skin hasn’t pruned up; you can read an exhaustive article he penned on the subject here.
Poignantly, in a city littered with the detritus of discarded water bottles, Pomerantz notes that, on a good day, you can actually still hear the rushing water of our neglected subterranean water sources.
Strolling through San Francisco armed with a 1913 hydrological map created by city engineer Michael O’Shaughnessey – now you know the source of yet another city street name – Pomerantz has discovered a number of vestiges of San Francisco’s more free-flowing past.
You can’t see the old wells that used to dot not only Market Street but a multitude of corners in Diamond Heights, the Castro and Alamo Square. But at the crest of Masonic near Roosevelt, there’s an odd pipe sticking out of the pavement. Similarly, on 22nd and Church, there’s a hook-shaped pole that marks a former well site.
Lastly, it was no coincidence that a soda water company used to be situated on 17th and Valencia. – the place is sitting on top of a water source.
“I think this is worth looking into and I think it’s worth getting the Board of Supervisors to pay attention to it and maybe even passing some legislation to protect these supplies,” said Pomerantz. “I think it would be a good resource, especially in times of drought.”
Yet drought or no drought, BART’s flushing away of potable water is far from the city’s only offense. Ruth Gravanis, a member of the San Francisco environment commission, pointed out that this is the only “urbanized city in the entire state that does not use recycled water.” This being San Francisco, though, of course a “master plan” has been enacted. Meanwhile, however, we continue to spray high-quality water onto our plants and SUVs.
Finally, Spreck Rosenkrans of the Environmental Defense Fund noted that, contrary to popular belief, we have far and away enough water to drain the once-majestic Hetch Hetchy Valley. While making up for the hydro-electric power generated by the current dam would be expensive, it might be worth noting that, prior to being sunk under 100 yards of water, the valley looked like this.
And that, as the folks at Visa are wont to say, is “priceless.”