The most controversial local ballot measure facing San Franciscans this November — whether to develop a plan to reform the Hetch Hetchy water system and restore Hetch Hetchy Valley — reflects a question that cities everywhere are grappling with. As geologist Andrew Alden asked in a recent essay about the measure, "Do we want to arrange our society as if nature really matters?"
Though San Francisco has a green reputation, it's also the only US city ever to have built a dam in a national park. In 1913, over the passionate objections of nature-lovers and newspaper editorial boards nationwide, Congress permitted the city, which had recently suffered a devastating earthquake and fire, to clear-cut and flood Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park for use as a reservoir.
At the time, the valley was one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world and home to thousands of plant and animal species. In the name of progress, and in keeping with the exploitative attitude toward nature that prevailed at the time, the valley was submerged under three hundred feet of water after the construction of the O'Shaughnessy Dam.
The Water Conservation & Yosemite Restoration Initiative, Proposition F on the San Francisco ballot, would require the city to develop a plan for a more sustainable, less environmentally harmful water system, including the use of groundwater, rainwater, and recycled water and the return of Hetch Hetchy Valley to the National Park Service for restoration.
Given San Francisco's reputation for leadership on environmental issues, you might think its civic leaders would have voluntarily developed such a plan long ago. Instead, San Francisco's political establishment has exhibited an ugly sense of entitlement on the issue. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee called Proposition F "insane." US Senator Dianne Feinstein, who thwarted a 1988 effort by the US Department of the Interior to study the issue, even called Hetch Hetchy Valley San Francisco's "birthright."