Over the years, environmentalists have repeatedly vilified Los Angeles for raiding the beautiful Owens Valley to satiate its unquenchable thirst for water. Eventually, court orders forced LA to curtail its Sierra water grab to save Mono Lake. But there is still one major California city that takes far more water than Los Angeles ever did from a once pristine, magnificent valley in the high country. And yet for nearly a century, the City of San Francisco has managed to avoid the same sort of scorn heaped on its neighbor to the south — despite the continued environmental destruction it wreaks in what is arguably the nation's grandest national park.
It's safe to say that most San Franciscans, or most Bay Area residents for that matter, don't view Hetch Hetchy dam inside Yosemite National Park in those terms. Instead, they see the 380,000 acre-foot reservoir as a birthright, if they know about it at all. In fact, most San Franciscans probably don't realize that when they turn on their shower, or flush their toilet, the water comes from the Tuolumne River 160 miles away, from a breathtaking canyon of sheer granite walls that their own city ruined when it dammed it up and filled it with water 86 years ago.
Doing something about that lack of awareness will be the next step taken by Restore Hetch Hetchy, an Oakland-based environmental group that has fought to tear down the 300-foot-tall O'Shaughnessy Dam on the Tuolumne River for the last decade. Earlier this month, Restore Hetch Hetchy moved its headquarters to San Francisco and plans to open an education center on Market Street so that city residents and visitors can learn more about Hetch Hetchy, a majestic valley with soaring waterfalls that John Muir once famously described as "Yosemite's twin."
The nonprofit, which began as an offshoot of Muir's Sierra Club, has hired a new executive director, Mike Marshall, who plans to launch a grassroots campaign to educate San Franciscans on the environmental destruction wrought by Hetch Hetchy dam. The first step is explaining that tearing it down won't mean losing their water. "I want to set up a permanent exhibit, showing what restoring Hetch Hetchy would really entail," Marshall told Eco Watch. Marshall replaces Restore Hetch Hetchy founder Ron Good, who took a job last year working for the National Park Service at the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez.
For decades, the restoration of Hetch Hetchy valley has been viewed as nothing more than an outlandish pipe dream. San Francisco's political movers and shakers are dead set against it. The most prominent, and vocal, opponents have long been House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and US Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has called restoring Hetch Hetchy "indefensible."
But Marshall is used to tilting at windmills. In 2000, he ran the campaign against Proposition 22, the first statewide initiative that banned gay marriage. In fact, Marshall is a longtime political campaign consultant, and his hiring represents a shift from environmental to political activism for Restore Hetch Hetchy. Marshall said that when he first signed up to run the campaign against Prop. 22, his friends thought he was crazy. "Nine years ago, no one wanted to take on that issue," he said. "No one applied for the job, and we started out with no money, but by the end we had raised $6.5 million."
Prop. 22 won by a landslide, but eight years later, its offspring, Prop. 8, which sought to roll back the state Supreme Court's decision to overturn Prop. 22, only won by 5 percentage points. In the intervening years, more and more Californians came to accept the idea of gay marriage. His friends now think Marshall is crazy for taking on the Hetch Hetchy fight, but he believes the same type of transformation can occur. He hopes eventually to put the restoration of Hetch Hetchy on the ballot in San Francisco, or to convince the board of supervisors to rally to its cause.
But for that to happen, Marshall said his group has to convince San Franciscans that they won't lose their water. He points to studies conducted by Environmental Defense, UC Davis, and the State of California, which all concluded that tearing down the dam and letting the Tuolumne River run free is "feasible." San Francisco, as a result, would not lose its water rights to the Tuolumne, but Don Pedro Dam, farther down the river, would likely have to be enlarged to accommodate more water, and new smaller, water storage facilities would have to be built.
But the biggest road block for restoring Hetch Hetchy is the price tag. The 2006 state study concluded that the total would cost between $3 billion and $10 billion. That's a huge number, but, in reality, it is both an infrastructure and an environmental project. And with the emphasis on infrastructure spending over the next several years to put the country on better financial footing, rebuild America, and create a green economy, there may never be a better time than the next decade to restore Yosemite National Park to its original grandeur.
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