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Reservoirs are brimming, so why might San Franciscans soon pay more for water?

Water From The Wilderness stills extracted from video footage: O’Shaughnessy Dam and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir | Jim Yager Media and Jim Spadoni/Courtesy SF Public Utilities Commission

Despite a winter with near-record-breaking precipitation, with California’s reservoirs nearly overflowing, water costs are on track to rise—and San Francisco residents breathing relief that a multiyear drought is over may be unaware of what’s coming. 

In less than a week, the city’s Public Utilities Commission will vote on a roughly 8.3% yearly increase, effective July 1 and compounding over three years. The agency estimates that the move will cost the average single-family household another $12.69 each month.

The timing may seem odd after so many atmospheric rivers. For the first time in years, Hetch Hetchy, the reservoir that funnels captured snowmelt to San Francisco’s taps, is almost full. In April, the utilities commission even lifted a 5% drought surcharge that had gone into effect one year earlier. 

Water travels long distances from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir to get to San Francisco. | Courtesy SF Public Utilities Commission

So what’s with the rate increase now? In short, it’s meant to ensure that the century-old network of pipes lasts for another 100 years and through weather whiplashes. 

The commission’s site highlights necessary system upgrades, adaptations to a changing climate and seismic enhancements.

That’s not the whole story, though. A report on the proposed changes shows the Public Utilities Commission’s perilous finances, partially due to money it plans to spend on these investments. If rates don’t change, the agency is expected to fully run out of cash in 2025 and become unable to cover its debts a year later, which will total nearly $400 million a year by 2028.

At the same time, it’s unclear exactly how these rate increases will pay for that debt

Looking ahead to the next eight years, the commission wants to replace dated pipes, improve sewer systems and do all the things we almost never think about when we turn on the tap or flush the toilet. 

“​​Even with these rate increases, our services are a tremendous value,” Joseph Sweiss, a Public Utilities Commission spokesperson, said in an email. “One gallon of our world-class tap water costs only 2 cents, while a gallon of bottled water costs $1.79 on average.”

The agency has every reason to be proud of that claim, but the average San Franciscan might still have a hard time uncovering what it all means for their bill.

There is a bill calculator, but renters or homeowners’ association members—in San Francisco, typically condo owners—may not have access to their bill at all, just as they don’t have access to the 160-mile, gravity-powered tubes that carry water from the Sierra. They simply get charged more or pay a higher rent.

The Public Utilities Commission meets on May 23 starting at 1:30 p.m. at City Hall. If the agency receives “written protests from a majority of the affected property owners and customers,” the rate changes will not go through.