Big Dam Mess

The Environmental Defense Fund embarks on a national campaign to shame San Francisco into restoring the other great Yosemite valley, Hetch Hetchy. But is shame really a good political strategy?

"People were asking, 'Are we going to continue with this as a priority?' But I saw to it that the committee remained," Werbach says.

Since stepping down as Sierra Club president in 1998, Werbach has made film documentaries chronicling such diverse events as the World Bank desecration of forests in southern Mexico and San Francisco's Noise Pop indie rock festival. He founded and leads a nonprofit called Common Assets, which is dedicated to preserving natural resources Americans hold in common. He writes articles for national magazines on environmental topics, and speaks on the same.

But nothing in Werbach's post-Sierra Club wunderkind life has raised nearly as much fuss as his appointment last year to San Francisco's Public Utilities Commission. As a courtesy, then-Mayor Willie Brown named firebrand Supervisor Chris Daly to what is usually viewed as the ceremonial post of interim mayor for a day while Brown was traveling. Daly used his day of mayoralty to swiftly appoint Werbach to the commission, supplanting Brown's choice for the position, the son of a campaign donor. This infuriated Brown and his allies and created newspaper headlines that for a week delighted everyone else. That furor died down long ago. (Among other things, the donor recently became the subject of an unrelated political money-laundering investigation.)

But a remarkable fact that didn't often get mentioned during last year's controversy remains: The former president of an organization spawned in the battle to preserve Hetch Hetchy Valley will now oversee the $3.6 billion overhaul of the water system that drowned it. That overhaul consists of 45 local and 35 regional construction projects to replace and seismically upgrade Hetch Hetchy's 80-year-old system of 11 reservoirs, two filtration plants, five pump stations, 60 miles of tunnels, and 280 miles of pipeline dedicated to carrying water across three major earthquake faults to San Francisco.

"When I was appointed, there were these immediate calls. And the first thought was, 'They're putting a Sierra Club president managing Hetch Hetchy?' The irony was not lost on me," says Werbach, whose boyish, self-effacing manner belies a precocious early adulthood.

Dramatic irony aside, Werbach's goals when it comes to Hetch Hetchy are surprisingly humble and bureaucratic-sounding. First, he'd like the PUC to consider the theoretical possibility that Hetch Hetchy might someday be drained as a potential scenario to be included in an environmental review that, by law, must be conducted before work on the $3.6 billion earthquake retrofit is to begin. "There's basically a number of actions that could be taken on the [retrofit] that will either increase or decrease the supply of water. Most are on the increase side. Increase the size of Calaveras Reservoir. Building a new pipeline increases supply of water. Draining Hetch Hetchy would decrease supply of water. What I will push for is to consider this as a contingency," Werbach says.

If he succeeds, environmentalists will obtain the independent, government-sponsored study of a Hetch Hetchy restoration that they've been pushing for since the Reagan era. Such a study would look at where, and how, San Francisco would store and transport water lost from Hetch Hetchy, where it would make up for lost power-generating capacity if turbines at O'Shaughnessy Dam were dismantled, and how much all this might cost.

The next step, Werbach says, is to advocate for infrastructure projects that would facilitate, but not require, the draining of Hetch Hetchy. San Francisco's water-system retrofit includes a proposal to build a dam, perhaps larger than O'Shaughnessy, to replace the earth dam at Calaveras Reservoir, which spreads across Santa Clara and Alameda counties. The more water stored in the new lake, the less that would be required in Hetch Hetchy. The plan also involves constructing an additional pipeline to draw water from the Tuolumne, and the greater its volume -- well, you get the idea.

"There is actually something to achieve right now, and it's probably not the draining of the lake. The thing to achieve is an environmental consensus that other expansions of capacity could be done that would eventually allow for the draining of the place," Werbach says.

If they are measured, they are grand plans, nonetheless. Just the same, Werbach's words lack the proselytical certainty one expects from a prominent conservationist. He insists I contact activists who oppose downstream reservoir expansion on the basis that it would ultimately decimate the Tuolumne River and nurture suburban sprawl. He sends me names and phone numbers and notes, on his own volition, that the environmental community is not united on Hetch Hetchy.

"I think the role of the PUC should be relatively agnostic. It needs to take the stance, 'If the public did decide [to drain Hetch Hetchy], this is what should happen, this is what we would need to restore it.'

"We don't want a third option, which is 'Fuck San Francisco.' That is an option that will come. If there's one thing I've learned in environmentalism, nationally initiated programs never work out in the interests of local communities."

To hear the first strains of Environmental Defense's campaign to restore Hetch Hetchy, ending John Muir's nightmare wouldn't be terribly difficult. Representatives of the group won't speak about their upcoming campaign for the record; the "Environmental Defense fights to restore Hetch Hetchy" story is "embargoed" until next week, a spokeswoman told me. A new EDF Web page, however, outlines the story's basic thrust, which will be announced in full at an Oakland press conference Monday, Sept. 27.

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