-Tim Redmond is executive editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian and author, with Marc Mowrey, of Not in Our Backyard: The People and Events that Shaped America’s Modern Environmental Movement (William Morrow, 1991).
A few years before he died, I heard the legendary environmentalist David Brower talk about tearing down the O’Shaughnessy dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley. Oh, he said, it might take a while for nature to return, but slowly, inexorably, it would happen. “Every time a species returned, we’d have a drink,” he said. “And in the end, we’d all be drunk and the valley would be restored.”
photo by Jesse Hull
How on Gaia’s Green Planet could a booze-loving environmentalist like me possibly be opposed to that? Well, I’m not. I’m all in favor of tearing down the dam, bringing back the glory of John Muir’s Holiest Temple and letting the Tuolumne River run wild and free. We just need a few things to happen first.
I’m not going to argue that all of the pristine water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir is entirely irreplaceable. San Francisco’s pretty good at water conservation, but we can get better – and the suburban communities that also use the city’s water can do a whole lot better.
Water recycling, better use of rainwater, replacing lawns with native plants … there are ways to cut water use. But if my friends at Restore Hetch Hetchy think they can tear down the dam and still keep my kids and my dog in drinking water without relying on the overstressed Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, well, I don’t believe it. The widely stated assertion that San Francisco can use other reservoir capacity doesn’t stand up to factual scrutiny. There’s no way to make this work without tapping into other water sources. A full 85 percent of the water delivered to Bay Area customers from the Hetch Hetchy system originates at O’Shaughnessy Dam.
But even if I give the water-dreamers the benefit of the doubt, there’s a larger problem here – one that environmentalists all over the nation need to think about. The giant dam provides not only water but electric power: 1.7 billion kilowatt hours a year of electric power. That’s enough to meet the needs of about 414,000 homes. And it does so without burning a single drop of oil or gas or a single grain of coal dust, or smashing a single atom in a nuclear reactor.
Damming rivers for power is a strategy whose time has passed, but existing large hydro is, by any environmental standard, better than nuclear or fossil fuels. And the sad reality is that no US city, including San Francisco, is in a position now to generate that much power from renewables.
Yes, some power could still be generated with downstream powerhouses – but the city would lose 42 percent of its generating capacity if the dam went away. If that power were replaced with natural-gas-generated electricity, the increased CO2 emissions would total 387,000 metric tons a year.
There’s more to the story, though. The dam was part of an historic compromise between conservationists, who didn’t want a dam in a national park, and the public-power advocates, who believed that no private entity should control essential resources like water and electricity. The Raker Act, which allowed the construction of the dam, was supposed to be the Magna Carta of public power in the western United States, a guarantee that cheap hydroelectricity from Hetch Hetchy would prevent private utilities from ever controlling the grid.
That mission has been sidetracked for a century, mostly thanks to the political clout of Northern California utility Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E). But the dam remains as the potential lynchpin of a new public power movement.
Why is that important? Because I believe the only real hope for a fully renewable energy future is the end of private utilities. No private company wants small, distributed solar; if every house in San Francisco generated its own renewable power, PG&E (which today can’t even meet weak state standards for renewables) would be out of business. As the old saying goes, you can’t put a meter on the sun. So as long as the private outfits call the shots, big power arrays, nuclear, and fossil fuels will be part of the picture.
I’m a hopeful environmentalist; that’s how I keep from losing my mind. And I believe that sometime soon, the private utilities will be declining, cities will use public-power systems to build nonprofit distributed renewables and we won’t need large-scale coal, gas, oil, nuclear – or hydro. When that happens – and California gets its water priorities in order – I’ll be standing in line to push the button that blows up the Hetch Hetchy dam.
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