Tens of millions of gallons of fresh water from an underground stream are being pumped from beneath a San Francisco BART station, treated, and dumped in the Bay.
2 Investigates confirmed that the transit agency has been removing 65 million gallons of groundwater from beneath the Powell Street BART station every year, for decades. When asked if there was a better use for all that water, BART and city officials said that despite California being in the middle of a record drought, a plan to put the water to work has been too costly and difficult to consider, until recently.
BART said there is a new plan in the works to give the Powell Street water away for free to private company based in Texas, which provides steam heat to multiple San Francisco buildings.
The streams beneath San Francisco
Flowing under San Francisco's bustling streets, a network of underground streams carries millions of gallons of fresh water to various parts of the peninsula.
The water is flowing under some of the most famous places in the city. Beneath City Hall, the War Memorial Opera Building, and the Moscone Center lie tens of millions of gallons of so-called "nuisance groundwater." If it wasn't pumped and removed, the water would flood the Powell Street BART station and other downtown buildings.
“It's water that is running underneath the ground from old creeks, historic creeks or just groundwater tables that has to be pumped away from building foundations," said Tyrone Jue, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission spokesman.
This map from the 1890s, available from the Oakland Museum of California, depicts the network of historic creeks and marshes, superimposed over the city's downtown streets.
The water flowing beneath the city is relatively pristine but would need to be treated before drinking. It's a process that the city says is too expensive and difficult.
"With the price of water as it is over the last couple of decades, it just has not been high enough to justify the cost of all of the infrastructure improvements that are needed to make the water drinkable,” said BART spokesman Taylor Huckaby.
Giving away water
The amount of water that BART has pumped out from beneath the Powell Street station could fill more than 98 Olympic-sized swimming pools every year. And the pumping and dumping has been going on since the station was built in 1973.
2 Investigates has confirmed that BART is working out a deal to give that water for free to a Texas-based company called NRG. The company owns the 85 year-old steam plant that's located about four blocks away from the Powell Street BART station. It provides the steam used to heat about 170 downtown offices and other buildings, according to the company's website. That includes San Francisco City Hall, the St. Francis Hotel and the Nordstrom Center.
Currently, NRG buys Hetch Hetchy drinking water from the city to provide the steam for those buildings. City officials say that by giving the Powell Street station groundwater to NRG, more drinkable Hech Hetchy water would be freed up for use.
NRG says talks have been going on for a year and half about building a pipeline from Powell Street to the steam plant. And if the specifications and other details work out, they say they are willing to invest in the BART project. After that, the city says it could take another year to complete the connection to divert the water to NRG's plant.
Millions of gallons more
BART isn't the only agency dumping large volumes of groundwater in San Francisco. There are plans in the works to reclaim millions of gallons of wasted groundwater from other areas beneath downtown too.
2 Investigates got a look at the water welling up underneath Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall at the War Memorial Opera House, where an 800-gallon well collects ground and rain water. It needs to be emptied frequently to avoid flooding.
"It's hard to get it (the water) out of here and get it somewhere and store it and then filter it and things like that,” said Mark Naddy, San Francisco War Memorial Building's chief engineer. “So it would be great if it'd get used for something.”
And about a mile away from there, the Moscone Center South has also been pumping and dumping four to 16 million gallons of groundwater a year since it opened in 1981.
"Right now, Moscone spends a little under $300,000 a year to pump the water into the sewer system. That's a waste all around,” said Rachel Gordon, a San Francisco Public Utilities spokeswoman.
Gordon says a half-billion dollar expansion project is planned for the Moscone Center that will address what to do with all that ground water.
“We think we'll be saving at least five million gallons a year of potable water that we use for flushing toilets and urinals, for irrigation,” she said. For decades, Moscone has been using Hech Hetchy drinking water to flush toilets, irrigate landscaping, and to clean the surrounding streets.
The expansion project is expected to be completed in November of 2018.