Until last year the San Francisco Public Utility Commission (SFPUC) was run by Harlan L. Kelly, Jr., a civil engineer appointed by Mayor Ed Lee. Lee, who died in 2017, was fond of talking about the “city family,” which some believe included a familial attitude towards quid pro quo favors. Kelly resigned in 2020 in the face of corruption charges. Mayor London Breed picked City Attorney Dennis Herrera to replace him.
While plainly named, SFPUC is quite powerful. Moated by seawater on three sides, San Francisco depends on a sprawling network of Commission-managed conveyances to keep itself watered and warm. With roughly 2,300 employees, SFPUC spends $2.2 billion a year, more than the gross domestic product of 42 countries. Serving 2.8 million Bay Area residents and businesses, it sucks in water and power located hundreds of miles away, from the Toulumne River and beyond.
SFPUC’s core functions emerged in the 19th Century, when rights to chug-a-lug surface water could be secured by planting a flag in the ground near the desired water body, often after forcibly dislodging whatever native tribes lived nearby. To secure liquid gold San Francisco Mayor James Phelan made side deals with farm interests in Turlock and Modesto, placing the City and its co-conspirators in a special class of claimants mostly free of state oversight even during the severest droughts. In 1913 the U.S. government authorized construction of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. The associated hydropower has the capacity to generate 385 megawatts – much less during dry years – enough to meet roughly one-third of San Francisco’s peak electricity demand.
Simply maintaining this complex system is a chore, wrought with technical, labor, and legal challenges, for which costs can, and have, easily gotten out-of-control. In the emerging era it’ll get steadily, maybe sharply, harder. Higher temperatures are causing the Sierra snowpack – also known as California’s most important source of stored water – to melt earlier and faster, elevating risks of floods and water shortages. Heat waves are increasing demand for cooling in the summer and worsening droughts. Last year, Downtown hit 100 degrees, blowing the bulb off the previous 92-degree record set in 1904. Where once no San Franciscan had air conditioning, today new residential buildings are frequently outfitted with a unit, which needs power to operate.
SFPUC has a long too-do list. It has to help batten down the hatches in preparation for increasing bouts of extreme weather, such as storm surges that require new, eco-friendly means of managing runoff, and which may necessitate an orderly retreat from Ocean Beach. It needs to bolster energy resiliency, potentially by taking over Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s distribution system, and cleanly repurposing the more than 800 fossil-fueled publicly and privately-owned backup engines in San Francisco, which’re capable of generating 530 MW, significantly more than Hetch Hetchy. And it must get ahead of accusations that its privileged water rights position isn’t just another example of extreme environmental inequality that needs to be remedied.
Herrera has impressive chops. He arguably created the nation’s most effective city attorney’s office, transforming a mild-mannered municipal law office into a good ethics superhero. He’s relentlessly rooted out corruption, regularly securing multi-million-dollar settlements from bad doers. He helped shutter the Hunters Point and Potrero power plants, and (unsuccessfully) hard pressed PG&E to sell the City its too expensive distribution system.
As a long-time Dogpatch resident, Herrera has repeatedly walked, biked, or driven by much of SFPUC’s portfolio, including Mission Creek, which is at the center of innovative efforts to manage sea level rises, the multi-billion-dollar sewage treatment plant located at the crossroads of Bayview and Islais Creek, vegetation-based ways to manage nonpoint runoff throughout the Central Waterfront, and conveyance of Hetch-Hetchy power to Port tenants.
SFPUC is an entirely different beast than the City Attorney’s Office, though. While one is staffed mostly by six figure lawyers who can be fired with relative ease, another is chockful of engineers, administrators, analysts, ditch diggers, and others whose positions are heavily fortified by civil servant protections. One involves moving word laden piles of paper, the other megawatts and acre-feet of electricity and water. San Franciscans probably wouldn’t notice, at least outside wine bars and cheese shops, if all the lawyers in town disappeared. The same thing can’t be said for energy and water.
Herrera is smart and well-spoken, dedicated to ethical public service, a true public servant. He’ll have lots to learn quickly, which he’s quite capable of doing. We wish him the very best, for all of our sakes.