first published in As It Ought To Be, November 4, 2012

The Hetch Hetchy Valley as it looked in 1913. Photo from the archives of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.


by Matt Gonzalez

A fascinating challenge facing today’s environmental movement is how to best approach the reversal of past decisions that altered once-pristine environmental spaces for the sake of urgent man-made needs.

There is one school of thought that says, leave it be, let’s move on to the next battle to save this space or that resource. But there is another very compelling view that urges fighting to win back the right to restore once unique and diverse ecosystems.

Some types of environmental restoration projects are well-known; restored wetlands, for instance, or coal mine reclamation projects. Recently though, larger dam removal projects have started, a number of them in Washington state. These include the breaching of the 120 foot Condit Dam on the White Salmon River to finally allow access for Pacific salmon and steelhead runs. Also, Washington boasts the largest dam removal project in history which includes both the over 100 foot Elwha Dam and the 210 foot Glines Canyon Dam which will allow passage by migratory salmon and trout species for the first time since the dams were built about 100 years ago.

San Francisco voters will get a chance on November 6th to take a similar step toward studying the viability of restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park when they vote on Prop F, the Water Conservation & Yosemite Restoration Initiative.

First authorized by a Congressional Act of 1913 to primarily provide drinking water to the San Francisco Bay Area, the O’Shaughnessy Dam was built on the Tuolomne River in 1923 which flooded the Hetch Hetchy Valley under 300 feet of water. While it destroyed the valley’s ecosystem it created the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, located 65 miles northeast from the city of Merced, which since 1934 has provided water to the San Francisco Bay Area, recently estimated to serve 2.4 million people yearly.

The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir also serves to provide energy in the form of hydroelectricity, with a capacity of over 200 megawatts a year. The water is transported from the reservoir by the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct which is made up of 170 miles of gravity-driven pipelines, dams, and other reservoirs. Hydroelectricity is produced by the Kirkwood and Moccasin powerhouses, which have capacities of 118 and 100 megawatts, respectively.

Can it be restored?

At first glance the very idea of trying to restore what John Muir once called “one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples” seems impossible, maybe just downright wishful thinking.

But many experts are starting to see renewable energy as the game-changer. If the city could harness solar and wind alternatives to make up for hydroelectricity losses and address water needs by simply collecting and storing the same water at a location downslope from Yosemite, perhaps the equation becomes more balanced and achievable. Also pursuing water recycling and utilizing the advancing science of desalination are just starting to be explored. But a serious, and well-funded, study is needed to truly begin exploring all of our options.

21st Century engineering advancements provide the opportunity to start discussing and evaluating whether restoration of this natural treasure is possible. Of course, it will be a large undertaking with a variety of concerns that must be considered. But there is no doubt that the project will attract the most creative and ambitious minds in areas encompassing many disciplines.

There is a preliminary belief that Tuolumne River water could be captured by other reservoirs that are downstream from Hetch Hetchy, the Cherry and Don Pedro reservoirs for instance. Furthermore, any shortfalls could be supplied via greater conservation efforts, newly discovered groundwater supplies, and water purchases when necessary. Voters should keep in mind that it’s the Tuolumne River that provides San Francisco’s water, the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is simply one of nine reservoirs used for water storage within the greater Hetch Hetchy Acqueduct.

There’s also the issue of better conservation. San Francisco is notorious for not recycling any of its water. We treat rainwater as sewage and wash our streets and flush our toilets with drinking water. By contrast Orange County, not known for progressivism, recycles 92 million gallons of water a day.

Any loss in hydroelectricy could be made up by increasing our investment in renewable power such as wind and solar, which we should be doing anyway. Already renewable energy advocates are noting that the 42 miles of above-ground right-of-way between Yosemite and the city could be fitted with enough solar panels to generate at least 40 megawatts per year—a proposal the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has never seriously considered because they currently aren’t required to do so. Who knows what other ideas will emerge by studying the issue?

Opponents say that such a study will cost too much. But Prop F supporters have proposed that a restoration study be paid for by committing 0.5% of bond monies voters approved in 2002. $8 million of the $1.6 billion dollar bond would be sufficient to get a reliable plan together voters could consider.

Former Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel has proposed restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley, as has the national Sierra Club and three former superintendents of the Yosemite National Park. A 1988 report prepared by the Bureau of Reclamation for the National Park Service states: “[The Hetch Hetch Valley] restoration would renew the national commitment to maintaining the integrity of the national park system and keep in perpetual conservation an irreplaceable and unique natural area.”

When the O’Shaughnessy Dam was first constructed, water management technologies were in their infancy. Now that these technologies have evolved, studying alternatives is highly attractive to environmentalists who see these major restoration projects as finally possible in the 21st century.

Despite the optimism, many are skeptical. After many ongoing legal controversies and broken promises, they should be. But this measure simply asks that the issue be on the table, and studying its viability will at least result in enhanced dam removal understanding that will benefit better ecology everywhere.

Voting yes on Proposition F will compel government to explore the alternatives. Nothing can be implemented without a further vote of the public in 2016, after a plan for action has been made available for public review, discussion, and debate.

Help give John Muir the victory that eluded him 100 years ago, vote yes on Proposition F, and take one step toward restoring the once pristine Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Matt Gonzalez is a former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: