Hetch Hetchy drain plug in voters’ hands

Flooded in 1923 to provide fresh water for San Franciscans, Yosemite’s 117-billion gallon Hetch Hetchy reservoir will get a strong yank on its drain plug this November from voters in The City.

In a few short months, San Francisco residents will pick sides over whether they want The City to create a plan for draining Yosemite’s prized Hetch Hetchy reservoir, restoring the wilderness valley that’s trapped under the dam’s 300 feet of water.

The San Francisco Department of Elections approved the Water Sustainability and Environmental Restoration Planning Act of 2012 for the November ballot after receiving the necessary 15,837 signatures last month from environmental group Restore Hetch Hetchy.

If passed, the City would receive as much as $8 million in funding to create a plan to demolish the dam. Then in November 2016, the plan would go to voters who would decide if the state should ditch the dam by 2035.

The lost water and energy supply would be replaced by 2025, mostly by increasing water recycling, conservation and alternative energy use.

Controversy is not new to Hetch Hetchy. Naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir described Hetch Hetchy Valley as Yosemite Valley’s smaller twin and fought until his death in 1914 to preserve it.

Nine years after Muir died, Hetch Hetchy was turned into a reservoir.

Spreck Rosekrans of Restore Hetch Hetchy, who has studied the issue for 20 years, said:

“San Francisco is known as a progressive city in many ways, especially environmentally. But in water, it’s just not the case. Restoring the valley would undo the greatest wrong that has ever been done to a national park.”

This particular controversy makes for odd bedfellows. Environmentalists and Republican lawmakers are siding together to have the dam removed, while Democrats are pushing to keep the City’s drinking water going strong.

Currently, the reservoir serves 7 percent of California’s population and the hydroelectric energy generated from the dam powers 42 percent of SF’s city-owned properties.

Donald Hodel, former Secretary of the Interior, told The AP:

“Eventually, it will be broadly understood what an abomination a reservoir in a valley like Yosemite Valley really is. I think it will be hard to quell this idea (of restoration). It is like ideas of freedom in a totalitarian regime. Once planted, they are impossible to repress forever.”

Previous studies have shown it’s possible for the City to continue collecting water from the Tuolumne River downstream. However, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee strongly claims there is no adequate replacement for the water The City receives from the reservoir:

“This is a ridiculous idea. It’s a Trojan horse for those that wish to have our public tricked into believing we have an adequate substitute for the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. We do not. There isn’t any.”

Even if an alternative water source is located, it’s unlikely to be cheaper than the $30,000 annual rent The City pays to use Hetch Hetchy.