OneWaterSF: An integrated approach for long-term water resiliency and reliability

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) provides top quality drinking water and wastewater services to the City and County of San Francisco, wholesales water to 1.8 million customers in the Bay Area and serves green and hydroelectric power to our municipal departments.  True to our mission, the SFPUC has been widely recognised as a leader in providing reliable 24/7 water, wastewater and power services to our customers.  To continue providing a reliable service, the SFPUC is addressing a number of challenges including, ageing infrastructure, seismic vulnerability, climate change, water quality and regulatory changes. The SFPUC also strives to be a good neighbour in the communities that are impacted by our water, power and wastewater operations, and served by our services and infrastructure.


Adapting to climate change

For almost 100 years, the SFPUC has provided drinking water from carefully managed surface water supplies with 85% of its supplies sourced from over 265 kilometers away via a gravity-fed transmission system. Also, through the utility water conservation programme, we have been able to reduce water demand over the last three decades despite population growth. However, to be more resilient to long-term water vulnerabilities such as climate change, new regulations, and population growth, the SFPUC has diversified its water supply portfolio through the treatment of wastewater for irrigation of large parks and golf courses, blending groundwater supplies with surface water supplies for drinking purposes and onsite water recycling to meet toilet flushing and irrigation demands with decentralised systems. New ways to conserve and reuse water and recover resources, such as purified water, atmospheric water generation, wastewater heat recovery and expanded leak detection are being explored to meet future water and climate change demands.

The utility is committed to improving wastewater services by ensuring that sanitary waste and stormwater are treated prior to discharge to the San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean. To support this, we adopted a Sewer System Improvement Programme (SSIP). This is a comprehensive approach that addresses several issues such as ageing infrastructure, seismic vulnerability, climate change and stormwater management, water quality and responsible resource recovery by incorporating new technologies to improve our communities and quality of life.


Mitigation actions

A key action around mitigation was the adoption of a Climate Action Plan (CAP): roadmap to achieving the city’s goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 by the City and County of San Francisco. This CAP developed in 2021 outlined strategies that can combat climate change, address racial and social equity, and promote resilience and economic recovery.

Within this Plan, emissions reduction strategies have been categorised in six sectors: Energy Supply, Building Operations, Transportation and Land Use, Housing, Responsible Production and Consumption, and Healthy Ecosystems. Some of these strategies include sending zero waste to landfills by making 80% of all trips outside of their cars, powering homes, vehicles, and businesses with 100% renewable energy, and carbon sequestration. In terms of equity, the CAP makes use of climate goals to create more equitable housing. The utility hopes to achieve an interim target of cutting sector-based emissions 61% below 1990 levels by 2030,and achieve Net-Zero sector-based emissions by 2040, equal to a 90% reduction from 1990 levels. A Water Supply chapter for the CAP is under development.

To further reduce GHG emissions in the electricity sector of San Francisco, the utility has over the years maximised opportunities for clean, renewable power generation by recognising the energy potential provided by their water and wastewater systems. For example, water reservoirs within the city have been covered with solar panels to generate up to 5 megawatts and is considered one of California’s largest municipal solar arrays located in an urban setting. Methane gas (biogas) is also captured at wastewater treatment facilities and converted to electricity used for plant operations.


Communication with citizens

The SFPUC strives to be a good neighbor in the communities covered by its water, power and wastewater operations, services, and infrastructure. Being the first utility in the United States to pass Environmental Justice and Community Benefits policies, the utility has proactively worked with our diverse communities to provide opportunities in workforce and economic development, arts, urban agriculture, and education.

Since 2014, the SFPUC has served as a national leader of onsite, decentralised water systems by convening a one-of-a-kind collaboration of public health regulators and water and wastewater utilities from across North America to address key challenges for advancing onsite reuse, particularly around governance strategies and appropriate water quality standards for onsite systems.

The utility also chairs the National Blue-Ribbon Commission for Onsite Non-potable Water Systems and develops technical guidance and resources for onsite, decentralised water systems, including health risk-based water quality standards, model regulations, guidance for utilities integrating decentralised systems with centralised water/wastewater systems and developing an  operator certificate programme.


Lessons learned

  1. The SFPUC has been celebrated for its innovative projects, programmes and initiatives that helped them better serve their customers, while taking care of the environment and using financial resources efficiently.
  2. The cornerstone of OneWaterSF is the vision of creating a more resilient and reliable water, wastewater and energy future. As the utility looks to meet this vision, we understand that there are many critical challenges to overcome and so we are continually inspired by new opportunities for utilising and managing our finite water, wastewater and energy resources.
  3. SFPUC believes new opportunities can only be uncovered and implemented through the kind of creative, collaborative thinking that is fostered through the integrated OneWaterSF approach. This thinking can originate from many different places; SFPUC staff, academia, private sector, and an engaged community all provide unique perspectives that expand traditional thinking. We also acknowledge that reliable, affordable, and equitable access to water, wastewater and power is the cornerstone of a healthy and economically strong community.

For more information contact: Paula Kehoe


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Paula Kehoe

Director of Water Resources
Paula Kehoe has worked with the City and County of San Francisco for over 30 years addressing water and wastewater management. As Director of Water Resources, Paula is responsible for diversifying San Francisco’s water supply portfolio though the i... Read full biography