The Restoration of Hetch Hetchy

Written with contributions from Bryan Schatz

The Hetch Hetchy debate has been called the most controversial National Park discussion in the US, the biggest urban scandal in US history, and potentially, the largest environmental restoration project in the world. The Sierra Club has backed restoration for nearly eighty years, Harrison Ford made a commercial about it (see below), and John Muir would dance in his grave if Hetch Hetchy were restored. For many environmentalists, it seems simple: dismantle the dam, drain the flooded valley, and restore the land back to what Muir called, “one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples.” The problem is millions of San Francisco residents depend on the dam for hydro power and clean drinking water.

O’Shaughnessy dam, which holds the water inside Hetch Hetchy valley, is 145 miles away from San Fran (roughly the same distance of Portland to Seattle) and is located right in the center of Yosemite National Park. In 1913, the Department of the Interior allowed San Francisco to build a hydroelectric dam inside the park as long as the city promised not sell the excess power to private corporations (to this day, there is not another dam in a national park).

From day one of operation, the city broke the agreement and sold excess power to PG&E, the largest private utility in the nation. For the following few decades, the Department of Interior pressured San Francisco to stop selling power to PG&E, beginning the Department of the Interior’s campaign to retrieve Hetch Hetchy.

In 1940, then Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, out of utter frustration, threatened to take over the dam. Under Reagan in the late ’80s, Secretary of Interior Donald Hodel proposed a study to remove the dam, and in 2007, under the Bush administration, another similar study was proposed.

Now there’s Prop F. On November 6, San Francisco residents will be asked to vote on it, and if passed, will require San Francisco to spend three years and $8 million dollars to come up with a plan to replace the power and water provided by Hetch Hetchy and remove the dam. The results of that study, proponents hope, will be voted on in 2016.

On first glance, it seems like a slam-dunk for the conservation crowd, but politics are making a mess out of it: California and San Francisco’s traditionally pro-environment Democrats (like Mayor Ed Lee, Tom Ammiano, Nancy Pelosi, Senator Dianne Feinstein and others) vehemently oppose Prop. F. Further, the Sierra Club, which has advocated for Hetch Hetchy’s restoration for nearly eighty years, is not taking an official position because of disagreements within local chapters. And another name, Dan Lungren, an ultra-conservative, pro-coal and oil Congressmen from Sacramento provided the letter to get the measure under review.

In the end, it’s a debate over the merits of restoring a national park at the expense of citizens of San Francisco. That could help explain why so many out of towners support the measure.

“The most recent report [as of October 26] shows less than three percent of donors for to Restore Hetch Hetchy have San Francisco addresses,” said PJ Johnston, Communications Director for Save Hetch Hetchy. “People are being sold a dream of undoing the damage done to John Muir, but the people who support it don’t rely on the water.”

As it stands, 2.6 million Bay Area residents and businesses depend on water and power delivered by the current system, and while Hetch Hetchy is not San Francisco’s sole or even primary source of water, according to Johnston, it supplies 220 million gallons of water a day. But it doesn’t have to.

“We need to manage our water differently, to do it in a more sustainable way,” said Mike Marshall, Director of Restore Hetch Hetchy (The names are confusing. Save Hetch Hetchy wants to keep O’Shaughnessy dam, Restore Hetch Hetchy wants to get rid of it). “SF is last in the state in water recycling. We treat rainwater as sewage when every other city is bending over backwards to reuse it. We put cement down over virtually all seven miles by seven miles with the exception of our parks. We have the smallest tree canopy of any urban center in the country, which is how most often water gets absorbed [into aquifers] in urban centers.”

And it’s true; San Francisco could be wiser about its water. The State Board’s 2009 water recycling agency survey shows “none reported” for San Francisco and the 2010 SFPUC Urban Water Management Plan shows no recycled water measurements. This is where the opponents seem to have some common ground.

“I agree that San Francisco can and should do more water recycling. Most people in San Francisco do. The Public Utilities Commission agrees,” said Johnston.

According to Jay Lund, professor of engineering at UC Davis who has studied the area extensively, sustainable and dependable water sources for San Francisco and a restored Hetch Hetchy are not mutually exclusive.

Last month, Lund wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, “The Bay Area does not need the Hetch Hetchy reservoir to continue Tuolumne River water deliveries. Modifying the Hetch Hetchy aqueduct to take water from Cherry reservoir or from the larger Don Pedro reservoir downstream could supply full Bay Area deliveries almost every year, with occasional shortages supplied from groundwater, reuse, conservation and water purchases.”

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, in a survey commissioned by Restore Hetch Hetchy, 46 percent of voters surveyed supported the idea of draining Hetch Hetchy, while 48 percent opposed it. That being said, 67 percent of voters want the city to create a more sustainable water system. Eighty percent would support capturing more rainfall, and 77 percent would support requiring that San Francisco recycle a quarter of its water by 2025.

Whether Prop F will pass on November 6 is a tossup, but one thing is clear: the people of San Francisco want a more sustainable water system. Perhaps this new system of collecting, recycling, and reducing water will be more reliable than the current Hetch Hetchy reservoir, one that’s future seems to be so sketchy.

By Yoon Kim