San Francisco’s water ways


The way San Francisco takes advantage of its bountiful water from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir would make John Muir weep. The iconic naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club fought mightily to prevent the damming of one of the most beautiful valleys in Yosemite National Park nearly 100 years ago, but lost. And there are reasons to think that the city that benefits from this extraordinary federal largesse isn’t abiding by one of the few restrictions placed on its water use.

The 1913 federal law that gave San Francisco its special deal also made it clear that the city was to take no more Hetch Hetchy water than it needed to “for its beneficial use for domestic and other municipal purposes.” It was to continue using its own local resources of water, supplementing that as necessary with the water from Yosemite.

But the city uses almost none of its own groundwater anymore. It does little to harvest rainwater, and its water reclamation efforts are minuscule.


Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Gold River) is asking Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to investigate whether San Francisco is breaking its agreement and the law. And though the underlying motivation for this request isn’t really to make San Francisco a better water citizen, the Interior Department should investigate anyway.

Lungren is an advocate of dismantling O’Shaughnessy Dam and restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley to its original state — what Muir described as “a grand landscape garden, one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples.” Certainly it’s true that the dam should never have been built; anyone who suggested damming a gemlike area of a national park these days would be treated much like a hunter setting out to kill California condors — which was also done back in the early 1900s.

But that’s different from saying that the reservoir that is there now should be dismantled. Recycling and reclaiming water are the right things to do, but they wouldn’t come close to providing San Francisco with enough water. An exhaustive state study five years ago found that replacing the water and power provided by the current system would cost $3 billion to $10 billion. Even if the state had that kind of money, it’s not at all clear that Hetch Hetchy should be its top environmental priority.

San Francisco isn’t profligate with its water; per capita consumption is far lower than the statewide average. But that’s not a good reason for wasting fresh water from the Sierra. With climate change expected to create drought conditions, the state’s water resources will be hard-pressed to serve all the needs; every city and county should be planning now to irrigate landscapes with recycled water and treat sewage water to the point of being drinkable. In the case of San Francisco, there’s also a century-old deal that it sought — and should stick to.