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?

"Environmental Defense believes that water storage could be found farther downstream on the Tuolumne in existing reservoirs and at other off-stream sites. With help from leading industry consultants, Environmental Defense has developed a number of cost-effective solutions for delivering to Bay Area residents the same reliable supply of safe, high-quality water, without compromising a national park. We'll release our analysis, the most in-depth of its type, later this month.

"'There's no question that Hetch Hetchy Valley can be restored,' says our water analyst Spreck Rosekrans. 'We just need the vision of the American public to lead the way.'"

The Sacramento Bee echoed this sentiment in a series of 12 editorials and articles running from Aug. 12 through Sept. 22. The package's guiding sentiment was summed up in an Aug. 30 editorial titled "San Francisco's Paradox."

"Hetch Hetchy is San Francisco's great civic contradiction. While the city's environmental agenda spans the globe, it keeps a glacial valley locked away close to home," the editorial professed. "No longer would San Francisco be, as [David] Brower declared it years ago, the pirate with the stolen national treasure. Instead, a city that prides itself on environmentalism could set its sights on a new cause: restoring Hetch Hetchy, a public jewel close to home."

The Fresno Bee pitched in with a save-Hetch-Hetchy story of its own, stating that "the emotional sparks between outraged environmentalists and supposedly 'green' Bay Area politicos are as spectacular as they are ironic."

As a factual basis, the stories drew from what they referred to as a study by "UC Davis researchers" analyzing the possibility of draining Hetch Hetchy without severely restricting San Francisco's water supply. These proposed measures include rebuilding the Calaveras Reservoir in Santa Clara and Alameda counties; negotiating a new deal with irrigation districts in Turlock and Modesto, which control the Don Pedro Reservoir that now provides San Francisco with water; and paying off S.F. residents for loss of hydroelectric power, among other things.

Environmental Defense recommended I also look at "the UC Davis study," which, as it turns out, is actually a master's thesis written by a geography student named Sarah Null.

In addition, Environmental Defense turned my attention to a letter written by Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla (D-Pittsburg) to Gov. Schwarzenegger, suggesting a state-funded study on restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley. The Bee has written a story on Canciamilla's letter.

Neither Environmental Defense nor the Bee noted that Canciamilla has made a hobby of urging the state to meddle in San Francisco affairs. In April, Canciamilla introduced an Assembly resolution urging the state attorney general to take over S.F. District Attorney Kamala Harris' prosecution of a man accused of killing a San Francisco police officer, because Harris, exercising the prosecutorial discretion all district attorneys have, decided not to seek the death penalty. "The report that came out of UC Davis really raised a number of issues in terms of the ability of the various agencies to restore the valley," Canciamilla said in an interview, again referencing the master's thesis.

If Environmental Defense got this much mileage out of Canciamilla's antics and someone's master's project, I can only imagine how far the group will be able to get driving an actual half-million-dollar study.

The plan sounds simple. First, round up a herd of studies. A group called Restore Hetch Hetchy will release yet another one this winter; there are Werbach's proposed environmental review, Canciamilla's state study, and the Environmental Defense study. Take a mid-1980s study conducted by Ronald Reagan's interior secretary, Donald Hodel; that makes five. Next, pressure San Francisco, the federal government, state legislators, and the American people to tear down O'Shaughnessy Dam. Increase downstream storage, and pay San Francisco off for lost electricity revenue. All at a cost of around $1.5 billion, Environmental Defense reckons. Werbach suggests it would actually require another $500 million, to cover contingencies, for a total of $2 billion.

Then, the Paiute Indians' Hetch Hetchy grass sprouts again.

"I think the main thing is the right-brain issues -- the aesthetic issues. Getting people excited about the possibilities, then responding to the real engineering issues that need to be addressed," explains Ron Good, an earnest, unblinking man who has nurtured the drain-the-valley flame through his organization, Restore Hetch Hetchy, a spinoff from the old Sierra Club Hetch Hetchy task force. "This gives a rational basis for moving ahead, having a more independent look at this funded by local, state, federal, and private foundation sources, to get even more unbiased information from consulting engineers who will say, 'Yeah, there are issues out there, and you can address them in a rational way.'"

Four years ago, Good was leading a hiking tour to Wapama Falls, a Yosemite Falls-like cascade visible across the reservoir from the top of O'Shaughnessy Dam, when he ran into Larry Klein, the now-retired manager of the Hetch Hetchy water system.

"We got into this discussion about restoring Hetch Hetchy," Klein recalls. "I said, 'What are you going to do for power, water quality, water supply?' He gave me his answers, which aren't a whole lot different than they are now. I said, 'What about this, and this, and this?' He said, 'This isn't a problem.'"

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