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An argument for draining the Hetch Hetchy
Eighty-five percent of San Francisco's water comes from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. San Francisco Proposition F calls for the city to begin evaluating the option of draining the reservoir. Before the Hetch Hetchy Valley was flooded, or the O’Shaughnessy Dam was built, environmentalists led by John Muir put up a big fight to keep it protected.
One man who shares Muir’s vision is Mike Marshall. He’s the executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy, an environmental group that wants to drain the reservoir and return the valley to its natural state. Marshall sat down with KALW’s Martina Castro, who asked him to go back to the early 1900s and describe the time when building the reservoir was a hotly debated radical idea.
MIKE MARSHALL: The argument over whether Hetch Hetchy should be dammed and flooded was the first national environmental debate in the country, really.
The national parks were first created when Yosemite was created as a national park in 1890, but they didn't have any money. They didn't have any definition. There were sheepherders there and loggers and all sort of stuff going on. John Muir and others really fought to create some structure to it, but the battle to try and keep Hetch Hetchy from being destroyed was the defining moment in the National Park Service.
Even though they lost the battle to protect Hetch Hetchy, the Park Service was created out of it. The Organic Act was passed. You will not find another national park with a reservoir and dam in the middle of it because of the fight to keep Hetch Hetchy from happening. And you know, the U.S. Senate debated it for a week. Wouldn't it be great if the U.S. Senate debated things for a week today? It was a huge national debate that was lost in 1913.
It then took about 20 years to construct the Hetch Hetchy system. They clear-cut the Valley floor. They built a railroad to go into Hetch Hetchy Valley in order to bring in all the supplies to build the dam and to take the timber out. Unfortunately, what they didn't do – the Tuolumne River corridor was the primary human corridor for thousands of years. Native Americans that were going from the east side of the Sierras to the west side of the Sierras followed along the Tuolumne River. As a result, Hetch Hetchy Valley was a very spiritual place and it was home to burial grounds for a number of different Native American tribes.
There was no effort whatsoever made to remove those remains or to protect those remains or those cultural sites. And today, it is expected that in the sediment behind the dam, which most dams have some sediment, very little at Hetch Hetchy because it's a big granite bowl, but there's generations upon generations of Native Americans interred at the bottom of the reservoir.
The dam was constructed and they finally started delivering water to San Francisco in 1932, 1930. And as a result, if you look at where San Francisco got its water before that, versus all of a sudden, there was this water from the high Sierra – we abandoned all local ground water use. We used to recycle water back then. San Francisco no longer recycles any water. Whereas today, Orange County, 20% of the water you get out of the tap is recycled. San Francisco, as a result of having this federally subsidized water from the high Sierra didn't develop any sustainable water management practices. And we're going to pay for that as climate change becomes a much bigger issue.
MARTINA CASTRO: So the biggest question on people's minds is where will San Francisco get its water? And also, there's a lot of electric power coming out of, maybe not the dam itself, but hydroelectric stations. And so power and water are on people's minds when they think of getting rid of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. What do you say to that?
MARSHALL: So the first question is where will we get our water? And my response to that is the exact same place. Hetch Hetchy is not the source of our water. The Tuolumne River, which flows through Hetch Hetchy Valley is the source of our water. San Francisco's water rights are tied to the Tuolumne River, not to Hetch Hetchy Valley. So all we're saying is, let's not store our water in a national park. Let's continue to use Tuolumne River water although let's reduce the use of it. Let's make it better. Let's make it more modern in terms of how we manage our water resources. But we will still be able to get most of our water from the Tuolumne River. We just need to store it elsewhere, outside of the park.
In terms of the power issue. Yes, the system itself delivers 20% of San Francisco's power. But understand, that's a really small fraction of the total power produced in California. San Francisco sells surplus power to Turlock and Modesto. That's the power that will be lost. And that's not a bad thing because they currently use that power to subsidize water to agribusiness, which is not environmentally friendly either. So there will be a 20% loss of power produced, but not any loss of power delivered to San Francisco. It's a loss of power being sold to the big farms in the Central Valley.
CASTRO: So on your website, I was looking it over, and you do have a plan.
MARSHALL: It's really not our plan, per se. But the state of California has looked at this issue. The National Park System has looked at this. The Federal Bureau of Reclamation, the University of California, Davis, the Environmental Defense Fund – one of the pre-eminent environmental organizations in the country – they've all studied the issue and have concluded San Francisco will not be harmed by moving the reservoir out of the national park.
CASTRO: So what will it look like? Take me step by step. What would it look like to actually do something like this?
MARSHALL: There are several plans. There's one by the University of Wisconsin on our website that suggests an adaptive restoration strategy. So that's where you control the draining of the reservoir, not just because you can't dump it all at once, but so you can control the non-native species from coming in, and you can facilitate the re-introduction of plant life systematically as the water comes down to the valley floor. The river itself will re-claim itself along its regular contours pretty quickly. And at which point, 18 months later, depending on the season that it finally happens, you'll start to see green meadows return to the valley floor. Within five to 10 years, you should start to see saplings coming up.
Now obviously, if we do an adaptive restorations strategy, that's on its own Mother Nature taking its course. If we work to facilitate it, and come in and have students and professors and restoration scientists facilitating the process, you'll see within 10 to 15 years you can camp there. The opportunity, the collateral impact of bringing this valley in Yosemite National Park, this iconic place that people from around the world travel to, it will have a huge collateral impact on other environmental restoration projects that are not as visible as the restoration of Hetch Hetchy.
CASTRO: Why are people against this idea?
MARSHALL: I think, our recent polling would indicate that the average person in San Francisco mistakenly believes their water comes from Hetch Hetchy and 80 percent of them can't identify the Tuolumne River as the source of their water.
And then it's the status quo and the bureaucracy. Bureaucracies are designed to deliver and to protect the status quo. And I would argue that San Francisco Public Utilities Commission – it's a great set of folks over there – but on a collective level, it's not their job necessarily to have the vision for the future. It's their job to deliver water and power to you and me today, as cheaply and as efficiently as possible.
And then if you look at a spreadsheet, environmental change requires resources and a reallocation of resources. And so if you're just looking at a cost-benefit analysis on a month-by-month basis, making investments in environmental change, environmental improvements are never going to cost out on the bottom line. We have a lot of decisions we have to make and you could argue that they're hard decisions relative to the impacts that climate change are going to have on us.
And we need public policy that addresses that, and we need to change our personal behavior. And this is a great confluence of it. It's about water. It's not just about Yosemite, or it's not just about Hetch Hetchy Valley. It's about how you and I use our water in the morning and we receive our water and what kind of water that is. And so I think there are so many collateral benefits to provoking this conversation that it's as much about the conversation as it is about the outcome. But don't get me wrong, we're going to win.
What do you think of Marshall’s idea to restore the Hetch Hetchy? Or do you have a radical idea of your own? Let us know on our Facebook page.