Time to Repair the Damage of the Past

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+Spreck Rosekrans is director of policy for Restore Hetch Hetchy. He has more than two decades of experience working with cities, farmers, tribes, and fishermen to find practical solutions for managing water and power in California and other Western states.

One hundred years ago, Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley was one of the most spectacular places in the United States. Carved by glaciers and surrounded by towering cliffs punctuated with waterfalls thundering onto a serene valley floor, Hetch Hetchy was described as a twin to the now world-famous Yosemite Valley that lies 20 miles to its south.

photo of a granite-bound lake with a dam spillway in the foregroundphoto by Jesse Hull

When San Francisco proposed to build a dam and flood Hetch Hetchy Valley, more than 100 newspapers across the country responded with outrage. President Theodore Roosevelt initially rebuffed the city’s efforts to dam the Tuolumne River at the mouth of the valley. But in 1906, after an earthquake and fire devastated San Francisco, Congress and President Woodrow Wilson relented and allowed the city to construct the O’Shaughnessy Dam. The valley was drowned under 300 feet of water.

Congress’s decision to allow the dam sparked reform of the National Park system. No such industrial development has been allowed in a national park since. And Hetch Hetchy’s damming has inspired generations of conservationists to protect our natural heritage and to commit to safeguarding our protected areas.

There are thousands of dams in the United States. Many are vital pieces of infrastructure that provide reliable water supplies, hydropower, flood control, and recreation. The O’Shaughnessy Dam, however, has caused significant environmental damage and its modest benefits can be replaced. We now have the opportunity to bring Hetch Hetchy back to life.

It’s important to understand that the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is only marginally important for ensuring delivery of water and electricity to the San Francisco Bay Area. For proof, see the reports by the United States Bureau of Reclamation (1988), Environmental Defense Fund (2004), and UC Davis (2006) that have studied the issue – all available at www.hetchhetchy.org.

First look at the water situation. San Francisco’s water system includes eight other reservoirs that collectively hold several times the volume of Hetch Hetchy. When (not if) O’Shaughnessy Dam is decommissioned, those reservoirs will still be in operation and the main major pipelines from the Sierra Nevada foothills to the Bay Area will still be in use.

In dry years, about 20 percent of the current water supply will need replacement. Given that San Francisco does not recycle a single drop of water and has virtually abandoned the use of groundwater, modernizing the city’s water system could easily make up the difference. Twenty percent is much less than what other communities in the state have done in recent years to help with restoration programs for fish, birds, and other forms of wildlife. San Jose has invested in sustainable groundwater extraction. Both Los Angeles County and Orange County are leaders in water recycling. And urban agencies in Northern and Southern California have built local surface storage projects that provide increased operational flexibility while improving reliability.

San Francisco, on the other hand, continues to rely on its bountiful supply of Tuolumne River water and has done little to develop alternatives. It is ironic that, except for its poor management of water, San Francisco is one of the more environmentally progressive cities in the world, a leader in energy efficiency, waste reduction, and protecting human health.

small excerpt of a poll pageReader OpinionWhat do you think? Should the O’Shaughnessy Dam in Yosemite National Park
be demolished so that Hetch Hetchy Valley can be restored?
Vote and be counted.

Then there’s the issue of electricity generation. When the Hetch Hetchy Valley is restored, three of San Francisco’s principal hydropower facilities will still be operable downstream. Most of the hydropower will be retained; only about 20 percent of the current generating capacity will need to be replaced. California is developing solar, wind, and other renewable power sources at a scale that dwarfs the hydropower at stake at Hetch Hetchy (or, for that matter, at other restoration projects such as the proposed dam removals on the Klamath River). Adding a fraction of 1 percent to the current investment in these projects will finance carbon-free replacement of Hetch Hetchy hydropower.

This November, San Franciscans will have a chance to chart the future of Hetch Hetchy. A ballot initiative, the “Water Sustainability & Environmental Restoration Planning Act,” will require that San Francisco develop a plan for a more sustainable water system and consider restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley. Any power lost due to the removal of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir will be replaced with renewables such as wind and solar. It is time for San Francisco to show the rest of the state, the country, and the world that people can take the initiative and repair environmental damage done by past generations.

Restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley would undo the greatest injustice ever visited upon one of America’s national parks. It would demonstrate San Francisco’s leadership as a truly green world-class city. It would inspire visitors from across the country and around the world to support restoration projects in their own communities. Restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley is a gift we can and should give to our children.

For an opposing view, read Tim Redmond.

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