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A chance to reverse a dam shame

BILL STALL is a contributing editor to Opinion.

SAN FRANCISCANS have long castigated Los Angeles for sneaking into the Owens Valley a century ago and “stealing” its water. But Bay Area folks become apoplectic when anyone suggests tampering with their water supply, the source of which is a far greater infamy than the Owens Valley dust-up.

Early in the 20th century, Los Angeles officials quietly bought up virtually all the private property, and the water rights, in the Owens Valley. As some say, they stole the water fair and square. In hindsight (and now that Mono Lake, upstream from the valley, has been protected), there has even been an unintended environmental benefit: A 60-mile-long recreation mecca, rimmed by 14,000-foot-plus peaks barely touched by development.

There was nothing surreptitious about San Francisco’s water grab. Pure power politics forced the Raker Act through Congress in 1913, giving San Francisco the right to dam the Tuolumne River and flood one of the most magnificent valleys anywhere -- the seven-mile-long Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park. Since the 1920s, the Hetch Hetchy Valley floor has been covered by more than 300 feet of water behind O’Shaughnessy Dam. By tunnel and pipeline, the water travels 160 miles across the Central Valley and the Pacific Coast Range to the Bay Area. Hydropower generated by the Hetch Hetchy project parallels the aqueducts.

Some have agitated for years to take out the dam and restore Hetch Hetchy Valley. The idea gathered momentum in 1981 when Donald Hodel, who was Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the Interior, added his voice. Studies in recent years have indicated that the idea might be feasible. And last week, a survey by the state Department of Water Resources confirmed that it could be done, at a cost of $3 billion to $10 billion.

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The report, commissioned by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, does not make a specific recommendation, but it does note what would be gained. “While beauty is a subjective concept, perhaps the most aesthetically striking characteristics of a restored Hetch Hetchy Valley would be the monolithic size of the sheer granite cliffs, the expansiveness of the open space from one side of the valley to the other and the valley’s waterfalls that cascade down from impressive heights.”

The report states the obvious: Far more study is needed. That would cost $20 million, take several years and involve the federal government. It’s a small price to pay for uncovering a state and national treasure. And although you can’t put a precise dollar value on a restored Hetch Hetchy, a legislative study quoted in the state report calculated “total annual use benefits” ranging from $15 million a year to $26 million.

So why is Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has a strong environmental record, dead set against further study? Maybe because she’s also the former mayor of San Francisco. She said the report demonstrated that restoring Hetch Hetchy is “unwarranted” and “indefensible.”

“Draining the reservoir,” Feinstein added, “would be far too expensive and leave the state vulnerable to both drought and blackout.”

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That’s baloney.

When it comes to cost, no one knows what the price tag would be. It would depend on a variety of options for maintaining San Francisco’s water supply and compensating for lost power generation.

Hetch Hetchy produces about 290,000 acre-feet of water in an average year, enough to meet the household needs of nearly 600,000 families. But San Francisco takes only about 100,000 acre-feet. The rest is marketed to other water districts, no doubt a financial boon to the city. Absent Hetch Hetchy, the city still would get most of its water from the Tuolumne, but from further downriver. It might have to be filtered, but most cities filter their water.

By contrast, Los Angeles gets about 610,000 acre-feet of water, roughly 45% of its supply, from the Owens Valley and the vicinity of Mono Lake. In fact, L.A. has cut back flows in the Los Angeles Aqueduct by 150,000 to 200,000 acre-feet in response to court orders limiting groundwater pumping and preserving Mono Lake. In other words, Los Angeles has given up more of its own pristine supply of water for the sake of the environment than the city of San Francisco uses from Hetch Hetchy.

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The state study showed what everyone knew: Restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley would be a massive, complex problem that would cost a lot of money and take a lot of time. It’s obviously not affordable now. It might be, however, over a period of 30 to 50 years. Imagine being able to look forward to having a sister to Yosemite Valley in its natural, undeveloped state, to rediscovering a “mountain temple,” as John Muir called Hetch Hetchy. Californians should never lose sight of that goal.


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