Thursday, February 10, 2005

Restore Hetch Hetchy

As a staunch environmentalist, ardent lover of Yosemite National Park and life-long supporter of lost causes (i.e., the Cubs), this is an issue that is important to me.

Here is a reasoned, thoughtful take on the subject (I've copied and pasted the whole story, since the link requires registration):

Tom Philp: Hetch Hetchy feasibility grows - so does resistance

By Tom Philp -- Sacramento Bee Associate Editor
Published Sunday, February 6, 2005

Suddenly, notions of restoring Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley and restructuring the San Francisco Bay Area's water supply don't seem so far-fetched anymore.

"This thing has serious political legs," said Susan Leal, the new general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. A transcript of a Jan. 20 meeting of Bay Area water leaders reflected her comments and her obvious vexation.

The old idea that has sparked a new look is whether Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park could be restored to its natural state. The valley's reservoir supplying the Bay Area's water would have to be drained for that to happen.

The state Department of Water Resources is assessing new proposals that examine storing the same water supply elsewhere. Environmental Defense, which spent months crafting a detailed technical explanation of how to take better advantage of the rest of the Bay Area's considerable water storage facilities, is winning new allies. On the political left inside the California Legislature, there are supporters such as the Assembly's Lois Wolk of Davis. On the Republican side, Assemblyman Tim Leslie of Tahoe City is among those intrigued by a package deal that restores Hetch Hetchy while building new reservoirs.

As the reality of a new Hetch Hetchy debate is dawning on San Francisco, the city seems to be struggling to find its political moorings. The reaction publicly evolved in phases. At first, Leal's agency cooperated fully with Environmental Defense as the environmental group produced its Hetch Hetchy restoration study. Upon the study's release in September, Leal officially "welcomed" its findings. But now that those findings are being taken seriously, the mood seems to be shifting. Talk of restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley doesn't seem so welcome after all.

San Francisco's water commission, Leal said at the Jan. 20 meeting, "will be considering a very strong, detailed resolution taking a position against draining Hetch Hetchy." She has urged other governmental bodies to follow suit. And a business group, the Bay Area Council, is recruiting opponents as well.

I wrote a series of editorials for The Bee calling for a second look at Hetch Hetchy. We were intrigued by the possibility of marrying two agendas - the Bay Area's pressing need to upgrade and expand its water system and the public's insatiable appetite for visiting beautiful Yosemite valleys. So now the San Francisco Public Utilties Commission doesn't like me very much. "You have a fairly zealous opinion about this," agency spokesman Tony Winnicker said the other day.

Without going into all the technical details, the basic proposal is to eventually drain the reservoir by punching a hole through the dam, once a bigger, better water storage system is in place outside the national park. Replace the lost storage - and then some - with a reservoir that San Francisco already was contemplating for the Bay Area: Calaveras. Build another pipe (just as San Francisco proposes) to the Sierra so that 100 million gallons more Sierra water can move per day into reservoirs when the water's available.

That's enough new storage and new conveyance in the Hetch Hetchy system to raise some legitimate questions about the future of that medium-sized reservoir in the national park. Technically speaking, this idea passes the back-of-the-napkin test. (Hetch Hetchy's is just one of nine reservoirs in the Bay Area's system, by the way.) If this weren't technically intriguing, some much smarter folks inside the California Resources Agency and its Department of Water Resources wouldn't be examing it.

This very initial study phase is normally a safe harbor for both proponents and opponents of any given idea, but in this case, even the prospect of a serious study seems to be rocking San Francisco's boat.

What does history reveal about San Francisco's apparent fear of a study? For clues, look to historian Robert Righter of Southern Methodist University and his soon-to-be-released book, "The Battle for Hetch Hetchy, America's Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism."

As far as restoring Hetch Hetchy goes, "I don't ever think there was a fair look," Righter said. "All of the looks were done by engineers or technocrats who looked only at money and engineering. They were pretty myopic in terms of what we might be wanting in the year 2000. Nothing about recreational needs."

John Muir lost the fight to save Hetch Hetchy in 1913, when Congress approved the dam in the national park. He failed to make a convincing technical case for how San Francisco could get the same supply in other ways. The new generation of Hetch supporters haven't made that same mistake. San Francisco surely has history on its side. But this time around, the allies of Hetch Hetchy have done their homework. That's why this has legs.

Then: "The leaders of the Bay Area and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) are highly sympathetic to the well-meaning goals of those who advocate restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley, and we are extremely interested in these studies and their findings."

SFPUC General Manager Susan Leal,
Sept. 12, 2004

Now: "This thing has serious political legs. ... The commission...will be considering a very strong, detailed resolution taking a position against draining Hetch Hetchy. I think it's about time that..your city councils, other organizations, take that same position."

Leal, to Bay Area water leaders,
Jan. 20., 2005

Then: "For a period of three years from the date of this agreement, the city and county of San Francisco and the SFPUC agree to remain neutral on Restore Hetch Hetchy's efforts to seek state, federal or private funding for the preparation of feasibility studies for restoring Hetch Hetchy."

City Attorney Dennis J. Herrera,
Nov. 18, 2003

Now: "We are writing you to urge you to join with us in rejecting any proposal to drain the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite Valley."

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger,
Oct. 4, 2004

About the writer:

Reach Tom Philp at (916) 321-1046 or


Jack Mercer said...

I guess I would have to ask about the cost of all this. California is in debt more than any other state in the Union, and continuing to have to borrow more. Is the price of Hetchy Sketch worth passing along to the next generation?

Kathy Schrenk said...

The water system of which Hetch Hetchy is a part is deteriorating at an alarming rate; if there's a major earthquake, it could be devastated. (This is due to gross negligence on the part of the city of SF, but that's a different story...) Billions of dollars have been allocated to studying and fixing the problem, so studying the restoration of Hetch Hetchy and relocation of the water stored there closer to those who consume it would be part of that overall effort.

DLW said...

hi, any chance I'll be hearing from you all again over at the Anti-Manicheist?

I know that there are serious issues with doing cost-benefit analysis of environmental stuff. One can't focus on the cost without considering the benefits, which require measurement of willingness to pay and a fair means of discounting future long-term benefits.

Its not really an exact science some make it out to be...