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SF residents may be asked to cut water use, despite recent rainfall

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission may ask city residents to cut their water use this winter to combat an enduring drought, despite a welcome flurry of rain in October and earlier this week. 

The cutbacks would come as California and the Bay Area enter the third year of a drought deemed “extreme,” though San Francisco remains relatively insulated from the worst effects of the drought in the state. San Francisco water customers would only be asked to conserve 5% of their water use, compared to a 13.5% reduction for wholesale users located outside of the city.  

Last month’s atmospheric river storm helped to partially replenish the SFPUC’s water supply and led to a dramatic 15% drop in usage among water customers over a single weekend, said Steve Ritchie, assistant general manager of SFPUC’s water enterprise, at a commission meeting on Tuesday. 

“I’ve never seen it drop this much,” said Ritchie.

But there’s no way to know now what the winter season will bring, and what reductions may be needed over the long term to conserve the agency’s water supply in the event of a protracted drought. The two-week forecast for the rest of November looks bone-dry, said Ritchie, and SFPUC’s water system would need rain from about six atmospheric rivers like the one in October to reach full capacity.

Winter snowpack and reservoir storage levels in April and May will guide future policy decisions on water cutbacks in the San Francisco area, said Ritchie. The SFPUC is still weighing its water conservation proposal and will vote on a plan Nov. 23. 

“We have a long ways to go just to reach normal this year, let alone make up the deficit from the last three years,” Jan Null, a meteorologist who runs Golden Gate Weather Services, told Here/Say. 

SFPUC, the third-largest municipal utility in California, operates an extensive water supply network in Northern California and has about 2.7 million customers, one-third of whom are in San Francisco. About two-thirds of SFPUC’s water is purchased by neighboring cities and the rest goes to retail customers in and around San Francisco. The 2,300-person agency is overseen by a five-member commission and led by former City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who assumed the role of general manager earlier this fall. 

One piece of good news: San Franciscans were “definitely getting the message that it’s a drought” as months dragged on with little rain this year, Ritchie told Here/Say.  

San Francisco residents cut water use by between 8% and 9% over the summer as SFPUC was weighing more drastic system-wide cutbacks. 

Any cutbacks for San Francisco residents would likely be voluntary and not come with any enforcement mechanisms, though the agency is still finalizing the terms of a conservation plan. 

Edited by Annie Gaus.