2 Investigates: Some of SF's biggest water wasters are part of the city itself

California has been plagued by one of the most severe droughts in state history for more than four years now. And despite the recent El Niño rains, just two days ago, the state extended emergency conservation measures. But even though parts of San Francisco are under a mandate to cut 25 percent of water use, 2 Investigates has learned that some departments aren’t meeting that goal.

Since summer, nearly 500,000 gallons of water have been used beyond the conservation amounts at San Francisco libraries, ports, and schools.

Documents obtained by 2 Investigates, show six of eight city libraries with irrigation meters used far more water that the city allotted.  The branch on Ocean Avenue used six times as much, the branch on Leland used four times as much, and the branch on Taraval used nearly double the amount of water that the city prescribed as the proper conservation level.

“We take it really seriously,” Roberto Lombardi, the San Francisco Public Library Facilities Director. But when asked how long the library has been aware of the problem, Lombardi said, “These particular overages just came to light this month.”
However, records show that this is not the first month with overages.  Last November, all branches with these irrigation meters were over by 68-thousand gallons of water.  They were also over the month before, in October, by even more:  91-thousand gallons. They were over again in September and again in August.

“I’m not aware that all of them have been there since August. We tackle this stuff as quickly as we can,” Lombardi said. “We’re like any organization; this is not the only challenge that we have.”

When pressed about why the library was unaware of the problem for six months, despite mandatory restrictions and state drought measures, he said, “Some of these overages that might be true for.”

“I agree about the drought, and again, I think that’s a very important thing, ” Lombardi added.

But conservationist Jennifer Clary says to her it “sounds like someone just doesn’t care.”

“Someone’s not taking the requirement seriously,” she said. Clary said the city ordered a serious 25 percent cut to metered irrigation to keep the entire city water usage under state ordered levels. And, she said, for the most part the vast majority of San Franciscans are conserving in their private homes.

“It makes me a bit angry because you have people who are really working hard and doing without to save water,” Clary said.

The library says the majority of water overages are either for public safety, like power washing the main branch sidewalks for human debris and needles, or for the public good, like to protect new plantings or parks.

“The plants are brand new, they’ll die if they’re not watered heavily,” Lombardi explained.

“So, my question is why did they do that?” Clary asked, “in the middle of a drought when they had a conservation requirement.”
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission monitors water usage. It says the library has been notified each month and charged double for each gallon that it went over.

“I do think they are a big deal,” spokesperson Allison Kastama said. “I think it’s concerning. I don’t think it’s the only thing happening across the city.”

In addition to libraries, 2 Investigates also found that at least five piers and properties along the port of San Francisco were also over mandated conservation levels.  In December, some like the cruise ship terminal at Pier 27 were nearly five times over.  In November, Pier 98 had more than two times the limit.

Richard Burman, with the Port of San Francisco, said he was surprised by those figures because he didn’t know about any of it until 2 Investigates requested the numbers, even though nearly half of the city piers and properties with irrigation have been over month after month.

Burman told 2 Investigates that he was not aware that the overages had been going on since September, and did not know why the port was not aware of the problem.

When asked if the port was wasting water, he said, “Well, if all these are legitimate over watering for irrigation, I would say yes.”

The port says it is not sure what is happening at any of the sites, and not even sure that the overage numbers are correct.  Neither is the SFPUC, the very agency that is supposed to be regulating them.

“It requires an investigation at the site,” Kastama said when asked where the water was being used. “It is their use, it is theirs to fix,” she added, referring to the departments with overages.

San Francisco Unified School District, however, has had a different response. After also being fined for water overages at five schools in August, the district says it immediately took action to bring that down to three schools in November.  That month they had a water surplus of more than 60,000 gallons.  In just one month at Lincoln High school, for example, they cut water waste by 700%.

“Based just on changes to irrigation systems and behavior,” SFUSD Sustainability Dir Nik Kaestner said. “Overall, we’ve stayed under our allocation meaning that we have used less than the 25 percent reduction.”

But not every city department has been as studious or as successful in stemming the tide since the mandatory conservation began in July.

The library now says it has found and repaired three leaky pipes or sprinklers at three branches. One of those branches, though, was still showing overages in the following month.

“I would say the bottom line is that things happen at the library that waste water,” Lombardi said.