Water Infrastructure and Workforce Development Supporting the Bay Area

This week, as part of Infrastructure Week 2018, city leaders are convening in Washington to advocate a strong federal-local partnership to invest in our nation’s infrastructure. It’s a crucial time to tell federal leaders in Washington about the local needs, challenges and innovative solutions around infrastructure.

From water systems to broadband networks and workforce development, infrastructure investments drive the local and national economy. Across the country, local leaders are amplifying this message.

Earlier this month, NLC had the unique opportunity to travel with the San Francisco Public Utility Commission (SFPUC) for a tour of their regional water, power and sewer system from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park, and points in between, including their Southeast Water Treatment Plant, College Hill Learning Garden, Moccasin Reservoir and Powerhouse and the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

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Serving over 2.6 million residents and businesses throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, the SFPUC understands the interconnectedness of their water and power system with the economic vitality of their city. From ensuring that school-age children understand the source of their water, protecting the pristine nature of the watershed, to leveraging federal, state and local dollars to upgrade their sewers through a 20-year, multi-billion dollar Sewer System Improvement Program (SSIP), they are working both locally and regionally to maximize the impact of their infrastructure.

Following a 1906 earthquake and fire that devastated San Francisco, in 1913 Congress passed the Raker Act granting the city access to land within Yosemite National Park to build and operate a water conveyance and hydroelectric system. That system became the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power system, which this month is celebrating its 100th anniversary of providing clean hydropower to the city. The system was built entirely with customer funds and continues to be funded by water system customers.

The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir was formed on the Tuolumne River after construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam in 1923. The reservoir can store up to 117 billion gallons of pristine drinking water that, because of the reservoir’s granite basin, needs no filtration and meets or exceeds federal and state standards for safe drinking water (one of only several such water systems in the country).

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Water from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir flows downhill entirely by gravity 167 miles, generating 1.6 billion kilowatt hours of hydroelectric power annually for municipal use at hospitals, schools, police stations, SFO airport, water treatment plants and MUNI buses.

On a daily basis, SFPUC calculates snow melt and water flow rates to ensure that water levels in the reservoirs and the system’s water bank are adequate to meet regional water and power needs. Even during the recent drought years, SFPUC was able to keep the reservoir full, while drawing down from the water bank.

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From a workforce perspective, the SFPUC is suffering in the same way as many of the other public water utilities across the country. With 40-60 percent of their workforce expected to retire by 2027, as well as the need to grow their workforce, the SFPUC is keenly aware of the need to invest in the workforce pipeline to ensure that residents are recruited and trained to fill these critical positions that support the basic fabric of the community.

These are good jobs with strong career pathways that lead to long-term, middle-class careers with generous benefits. From investing in youth work-based learning opportunities and internships as well as partnerships to train and place local workers into construction jobs, the SFPUC is deeply a part of planning efforts at the state, regional and local level to ensure that they are both recruiting new potential workers as well as up-skilling their current labor pool.


Getting into the schools early to help them understand these issues is key to the strategy. Working with the San Francisco Unified Public School District and other city departments, SFPUC has worked to develop programs that ensure that STEM, water conservation and pollution prevention are integrated into the classroom curriculum. An example of this is their Big Ideas book, which provides teachers in Grades K-12 with a guide about the water, power and sewer system. The SFPUC also brings hundreds of children each year to their College Hill Learning Garden, which is an education and demonstration spaces that teaches students about ecologically-friendly systems in a hands-on way.

As we traveled with SFPUC through each of these programs and examined their watershed firsthand, it was incredible to see the size and scope of their operations and to understand the ongoing needs as they work to provide the best service to city residents. So, the next time you are in San Francisco, make sure you drink the tap water – straight from Hetch Hetchy into your water bottle!

About the Authors: Carolyn Berndt is the program director for infrastructure and sustainability on the NLC Federal Advocacy team. Follow Carolyn on Twitter at @BerndtCarolyn.




Stephanie Martinez-Ruckman is the Program Director for Human Development at the National League of Cities. Follow Stephanie on Twitter @martinezruckman.