The Hetch Hetchy Debate
The proposed Safe, Clean, and Reliable Drinking Water Supply Act of 2010 includes over $2.25 billion in funding for San Joaquin Delta sustainability and repair projects, as well as billions more for statewide water storage projects. To many in Southern California regions like San Diego, the bond measure is fantastic –more funding in the water system means that water-scarce regions will enjoy more abundant (and cheaper) water supply. For many in Northern California regions like San Francisco, the bond measure is less appealing –the bond would make wet cities pay for expensive water projects that benefit dry cities hundreds of miles away. This kind of conflict is inevitable in situations where pooled resources are spent on different groups (or “special interests” in political terms).
A full analysis of the bond and all its pros and cons is beyond the scope of this post, and perhaps such an analysis is impossible because the relationships and dependencies between different groups (i.e. the public and private sector, environmentalists and builders, the northern and southern residents) are often hard to identify objectively. Today, I want to look at a water issue that is closer to home and narrower in scope. Let’s look at the conflict over the Hetch Hetchy Valley reservoir in California’s Yosemite National Park. Studying a smaller water conflict allows us to circumvent the layers of complexity typical in a statewide water conflict and more easily see the details of a water policy debate.
The Hetch Hetchy Valley is a glacial valley in California’s Yosemite National Park. Essentially, it is a big rock bowl. John Muir visited the Hetch Hetchy valley in 1871 and later described the area as one of “Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples.” San Francisco would later dam the valley with the O’Shaughnessey Dam, completed in 1923. The once empty rock bowl is now filled with pristine water 300 feet deep.
From an engineering standpoint, the reservoir created by the O’Shaughnessey Dam is impressive. It is a notable project for the following reasons:
- The water from the reservoir is conveyed to San Francisco by gravity. The water conveyance system needs no additional energy inputs, unlike the system of pumps that brings San Joaquin Delta water to Southern California.
- Hydroelectricity generation from the O’Shaughnessey dam provides San Francisco with 20% of its electricity.
- The water from the O’Shaughnessey dam has “filtration avoidance” status; only minor treatment (addition of lime for corrosion control and chlorine for disinfection) is required before the city pipes the water to end-users.
- O’Shaughnessey Dam is large. It provides about 25% of the storage in the entire Hetch Hetchy Reservoir system.
From an environmentalist standpoint, the O’Shaughnessey Dam is a blight that has ruined part of Yosemite National Park. Old black-and-white photos of the Hetch Hetchy rock bowl before damming reveal a beautiful landscape. Groups like the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund support the idea of removing the aging O’Shaughnessey Dam and restoring the Hetch Hetchy to its former glory.
Removing O’Shaughnessey Dam, however, would require San Francisco to either find new water sources or cut its water use dramatically. Without the reservoir’s pristine water, the city would have to build energy-intensive water treatment plants to bring replacement water to drinkable standards. Furthermore, San Francisco would lose 20% of its electricity supply without generation from the dam.
The Environmental Defense Fund argues that because San Francisco is investing $3.2 billion in overhauling its water system, now is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reassess the need for the [O’Shaughnessey] dam.” The San Francisco Public Utility Commission considered removal of the dam and concluded that it would cost about $10 billion for its removal and for construction of new water substitutes. Production of additional electricity to treat lesser quality water and replace lost hydropower will have other environmental costs that may outweigh the benefits of restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley.
The debate over the Hetch Hetchy Valley pits environmental interests against urban interests. Newspapers around the country call for California to restore the valley so that Americans can once again enjoy its natural beauty. Like the larger scale water bond disagreement in California, the disagreement over the Hetch Hetchy involves many views on how natural resources should be utilized in a region.
Should a city spend $10 billion to enhance a national park by restoring an environment to its natural state? Restore Hetch Hetchy, one of the leading organizations in support of removing the O’Shaughnessey Dam, says that water from “Tuolumne river water stored in the Hetch Hetchy valley of Yosemite National Park can be stored elsewhere and delivered without interruption to its end users.” Where, exactly, is elsewhere? While Hetch Hetchy may be restored, another area’s ecological system may be utilized in its stead. San Francisco needs to get its water from somewhere, after all.
Everything that city and state governments do affects groups differently. In California, investment in the San Joaquin Delta system benefits farmers in the central valley and residents in Los Angeles, but it threatens some endangered fish species and forces Northern Californians to pay for Southern Californians’ massive delta withdrawals. Also, there are environmental groups on both sides of the debate; the Nature Conservancy and Audubon Society support the bond while the Sierra Club and the Planning and Conservation League oppose it. The complexity of the California water bond debate is shaped by numerous individual examples such as the Hetch Hetchy conflict. Even the smaller, regional Hetch Hetchy conflict involves huge differences in geographic, hydrological, social, and special interests.
I doubt the O’Shaughnessey Dam will be removed any time soon, but groups will continue to lobby for the restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley. Meanwhile at the macro-level, the state continues to struggle with the water bond debate. Unless the bond is delayed until the 2012 ballot, voters will have to pick a side by November this year.
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