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A San Francisco bond measure that would pay for an upgrade of the century-old Hetch Hetchy water system is being closely watched in cities around San Francisco Bay that also rely on the Sierra-fed water that flows through its aging pipes.
The backers of Proposition A, which include every major business and civic organization in the city, say the $1.6 billion bond measure is essential to improve the water system and ensure its safety in the case of a major earthquake. The Hetch Hetchy project was completed in 1934, and most people agree that years of deferred maintenance have left it vulnerable.
However, an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, property owners and neighborhood groups has come together to oppose the measure, saying it is a thinly veiled plan to expand water capacity and encourage suburban sprawl.
The measure, which goes before San Francisco voters Nov. 5, needs a simple majority to win. Early polling indicated it would pass comfortably, but some recent surveys show the margin narrowing.
Proposition A asks voters to authorize a $1.6 billion revenue bond that would be repaid through rate increases. The average San Francisco household's water bill would rise from $14.43 to $40.85 by 2015. An additional $2 billion would come from a new financing authority that includes San Francisco and 29 suburban water wholesalers that buy Hetch Hetchy water.
The system of reservoirs, pipes and treatment plants carries water more than 160 miles from the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park to 2.4 million users in San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo and Alameda counties. It crosses three fault lines, and engineers say a major earthquake probably would knock out the region's water for at least two months.
"We are in absolute danger in an earthquake,'' said Jim Chappell, president of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. "There simply is no question. Last week there was a water main break. A lot of these pipes are 75 years old.''
But critics maintain the measure would do much more than fix pipes and harden reservoirs against a temblor. Opposition is being led by the Sierra Club, the environmental group that traces its spiritual legacy to John Muir's fight against damming Hetch Hetchy Valley.
But club members say their concerns about Proposition A have more to do with what they consider the hidden agenda of Proposition A -- expanded water capacity. If system repairs and retrofitting are really what's needed, they say, the city already has the ability to float bonds for those items.
``This is outrageous,'' said John Rizzo, a spokesman for the club. "We don't need a $3.6 billion spending measure to do this. They can do it now, and they should do it now. They're using it as an excuse to expand the system.''
Some opponents go further, arguing that political forces outside San Francisco are leading the charge to create more water capacity.
"It's clear this is an expansion of system capacity to accommodate growth, and that growth is mainly in the South Bay,'' said Joan Girardot, who represents the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods. "We are saying, `Why would the San Francisco homeowner or tenant pay for expanding the system?' They don't get any benefit from that.''
City officials and Proposition A backers say the critics are off base. Items that may appear to be an expansion of water capacity, such as drilling new tunnels next to the old ones, are actually designed as ``redundancy,'' to provide a route for the water if an earthquake destroys an existing tunnel. And the city attorney issued an opinion that the city must ask for voter approval for the proposed upgrades.
San Francisco's environmental community is not united against the water measure. The Green Party and the League of Conservation Voters support it, on the grounds that failing to take care of the system could lead to a state takeover and less oversight by local activists.
"Environmentalists have questions about this,'' said Amandeep Jawa, of the League of Conservation Voters. "The question is, what is the best way to repair the system and move forward? If A does not pass, then the state will take over the system, and we will have less control over those projects. We are afraid there are sources in the state that are less concerned about sprawl.''