The Hundred Year War

Fighting to Save Hetch Hetchy—Again

&~?4&?{2}gress passed the Raker Act in 1913, granting San Francisco the right to flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park to bring water and hydroelectric power to a city devastated by the earthquake and fires of 1906, it was supposed to be the final act in a passion play that had been running in California since the late 1800s. The thing is: the show never closed.

These days, in fact, the fight to save Hetch Hetchy is more alive than ever. Four major research efforts—three within the past five years—all suggest the same thing: that San Francisco’s use of Hetch Hetchy as its own private water tank may no longer be the best way to bring water and power to some 2.4 million people. "We’re devoted to the idea that the O"Shaughnessy Dam can be taken down, the Hetch Hetchy Valley restored, and the water and power needs of San Francisco Bay Area people met in other ways," says Ron Good, executive director of the grassroots group Restore Hetch Hetchy.

Restoring Hetch Hetchy is not a new idea. The first re-examination took place back in 1987. "We thought it was entirely possible to remove the dam, restore the valley, and provide water and power at least equal to what comes out of [the Tuolumne River] now—if only [San Francisco] would operate the river system properly," says Donald Hodel, then Secretary of the Interior under President Ronald Reagan.

Unfortunately, Hodel adds, Congress at the time refused to allocate any money for an environmental impact report. And so the idea of restoring Hetch Hetchy died a death that seemed every bit as irreversible as the one John Muir and the Sierra Club had suffered in 1913, when a snow-job by "progressive" San Francisco politicians fooled Congress into believing that damming Hetch Hetchy was the way to bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people—despite the fact that at least three other alternative sites had been studied in the Sierra Nevada.

The idea of restoring Hetch Hetchy lay dormant until about five years ago, when Sarah Null, a graduate student in geography at the University of California, Davis, breathed new life into the controversy with a much-publicized master’s thesis that explored how the Hetch Hetchy water system would function without the O"Shaughnessy Dam.

Null went to her computer and discovered that the way to bring water and power to San Francisco without the dam was surprisingly simple: simply let water flow downstream into another reservoir, Don Pedro, built by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts in 1923 and enlarged in 1971 to store nearly six times the amount of water captured at Hetch Hetchy. A third Hetch Hetchy study, by Environmental Defense last fall, reached the same conclusion.

On the power side, the Environmental Defense analysis concluded that "the amount of hydropower that would be lost as a result of restoring Hetch Hetchy is dwarfed by the potential to save energy by improving efficiency. The power loss also appears negligible when one considers
[that] more than a dozen new gas-fired plants with a typical capacity of 500 megawatts have entered service in California since 2001, and less than 20 percent of the annual output of just one of them could replace all of the foregone energy."

Restore Hetch Hetchy is the latest group to join the conversation over the fate of Yosemite’s "lost" valley. Gerald Meral, a former deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources and a member of the Restore Hetch Hetchy executive committee, says that one way to allow water delivery objectives in the San Francisco Bay Area and in the local irrigation districts is to raise Don Pedro Reservoir and to connect it with the Foothill Tunnel, which passes directly beneath the reservoir. This option, Meral adds, would inundate seven-tenths of a mile of the wild and scenic Tuolumne River. Mitigation efforts would, of course, include restoring the eight-mile stretch of the river that flows through the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Restore Hetch Hetchy estimates the cost of raising Don Pedro Reservoir at $234 million.

A second option, Meral says, involves replacing the Calaveras Dam, built in 1918 in the hills above San Francisco’s East Bay. "In its $3.6 billion capital improvement program to repair and modernize the Hetch Hetchy water system, San Francisco proposes to replace the Calaveras Dam with a much larger one," Meral says. "This enlargement of the reservoir would allow the city to divert up to an additional 300,000 acre-feet from the Tuolumne River annually, allowing for increased population growth in its South Bay service area. We estimate the cost of building the larger dam and a pump station at $110 million."

In the end, where is the $1 billion going to come from to replace water and power supplies, remove the Hetch Hetchy dam and restore the valley? "I think you could fund the removal of the dam with a public campaign that wouldn’t require any federal money," says Hodel, these days an energy consultant in Colorado. "It’s like the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. That was done with public funds, not with taxpayers" money—and it was a great project that brought pride and meaning to the people of the U.S."

Restore Hetch Hetchy’s Ron Good believes that a similar outcome can be achieved in the remote little valley in Yosemite. "John Muir called Hetch Hetchy "a grand landscape garden, one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples,"" Good says. "Muir also said that what people have destroyed, people and nature can restore."