Sierra Pipe Dreams

In the secluded northwest section of Yosemite National Park, 674,000 cubic yards of concrete and 760 tons of steel symbolize one of the environmental movement’s most painful losses. The O’Shaughnessy Dam holds back 117 billion gallons of cold Tuolumne River mountain water—the drinking supply for 2.4 million people in the Bay Area. Once the largest structure on the West Coast, the dam has become the subject of a ghostly resurrection of the battle fought by environmental icon John Muir, whose heart, some say, was broken when Congress authorized the flooding of once-idyllic Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Muir rallied a burgeoning preservation movement in his effort to prevent the 1913 Raker Act and save Hetch Hetchy, which he called “a wonderfully exact counterpart of the great Yosemite,” the valley that lies less than twenty miles to the southeast. After a years-long public battle, fought in Congress and on editorial pages across the country, San Francisco got its Sierra reservoir.

Now, as the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission undertakes a $3.6 billion seismic upgrade and expansion of its water system, dam critics are again pointing a national spotlight on Hetch Hetchy. Their efforts may soon confront an opposition as fierce as Muir’s.

In September 2004, Environmental Defense issued the study “Paradise Regained,” a detailed survey of water and hydroelectric power alternatives for the Hetch Hetchy system. The report concludes that SFPUC upgrades are compatible with the restoration of the valley, and that water could be stored in other reservoirs. That study came on the heels of a UC Davis graduate thesis that used water modeling software to suggest that the SFPUC could meet customer demand without Hetch Hetchy.

In November, state resources secretary Mike Chrisman gave valley advocates a boost when he authorized a survey of recent restoration studies and older proposals—including a Reagan-era Bureau of Reclamation study vigorously opposed by Dianne Feinstein, then San Francisco’s mayor. The state will also partner with the National Park Service to look at the economic benefits of a revitalized valley.

Chrisman says he is uncertain whether the state assessment will make a specific recommendation. “Hopefully we’re going to set up an informed public dialogue on what the choices are—and if we do this, how we go about it,” he says.

Meanwhile, SFPUC officials are dubious. “It’s easy to get excited about romantic ideas; we all do,” says spokesman Tony Winnicker. “We sympathize and understand the energy around a proposal like this. Our main responsibility and our mission is to deliver safe, reliable, high-quality drinking water∧ any proposal that threatens or jeopardizes that mission is going to cause us grave concern and alarm and potentially would be something that we would oppose.”

Jennifer Witherspoon, communications director for the California office of Environmental Defense, says there are “entrenched interests” that are defending the Hetch Hetchy system. “If they don’t have to, they’re not going to budge, so that’s the point of getting the public involved,” says Witherspoon.

Ron Good, of the advocacy group Restore Hetch Hetchy—which will soon issue its own engineering study, including suggestions for how to remove the dam—is quick to say the debate is not antagonistic. “We don’t look at it as a battle or a fight; it’s an educational process,” he explains.

“Our goal is to develop a scenario that is broadly accepted by San Francisco and its customers, including the PUC,” says Environmental Defense regional director Tom Graff, a thirty-year veteran of California’s water wars. Both Graff and Good point to the efforts of the Mono Lake Committee, which worked with the needs of Los Angeles water users and was able to restore water flows into long-deprived Mono Lake.

It took twenty years of litigation to restore Mono. Graff says he hopes to celebrate the decision to restore Hetch Hetchy on the 100th anniversary of the Raker Act, in 2013.

Beyond water and power technicalities, Environmental Defense’s study makes future policy hurdles clear. Not only would restoration be very expensive in a time of tight budgets, advocates would need both state and federal legislation—which could only come with broad public support. Perhaps more importantly, the SFPUC would have to renegotiate contracts with the Turlock and Modesto Irrigation Districts, which have senior water rights on the Tuolumne River. Officials for the districts wrote an editorial skeptical of restoration in the Sacramento Bee this fall.

Nonetheless, the political environment has not been as dismissive of a restored valley as in the past. “What’s extraordinary is how receptive it already is,” says Graff.

Ron Good takes a broader view. “The laws of gravity are with us,” he says. “Not one drop of water is going to be lost in any of these scenarios. Water will still flow downhill without O’Shaughnessy Dam.”


Comments are closed.