Restore Hetch Hetchy has SF PUC in debate with nonprofit group Special

Posted Mar 12, 2011 by Jonathan Farrell
In sunny California where the mild climate attracts just about everyone from everywhere the demand for water is constant.
Executive Director  Mike Marshall of Restore Hetch Hetchy in his office on Mission Street in San Fra...
Executive Director, Mike Marshall of Restore Hetch Hetchy in his office on Mission Street in San Francisco (Jan. 2011)
As a major agricultural region where annual rainfall is about 14 to 16 inches on average concerns about water with or without a drought it is critical.
This is why the campaign to restore Hetch Hetchy is an on-going debate that has a grass-roots non-profit group at odds with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
This reporter met with the current Executive Director Mike Marshall at Restore Hetch Hetchy headquarters on Mission Street in San Francisco this past January 30.
He was eager to talk about the effort to gain public support to restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley to its former natural splendor.
"Our goal is to get this effort to Restore Hetch Hetchy placed on the ballot for San Francisco voters to decide upon," he said.
Marshall and his fellow members of the grass-roots campaign believe that San Francisco's water needs can be better served by restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley back to its original condition.
Situated inside Yosemite National Park, the Hetch Hetchy Valley was described by pioneering conservationist John Muir as “one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples.”
It’s with this deep affinity that Restore Hetch Hetchy was established over 10 years ago by Ron Good. “Ron was the heart and soul who spent over 10 years on this visionary effort, I hope to carry this on further to completion," said Marshall.
A few days earlier Marshall and his staff had a reception and press event to welcome Wild Equity Institute to the building. The two non-profits now share office space and similar goals in their quest to preserve Northern California’s natural habitats.
"Hetch Hetchy only stores our water," said Marshall. "We are not talking about taking water away,” he said. “We are just saying that San Francisco should find another location to store water,” Marshall said.
"With eight reservoirs in the SF Bay Area why not find another location and allow the Hetch Hetchy Valley to be restored," said Marshall. "Service to over 2.4 million people would not change upon the valley's restoration," Marshall said.
"Since the 1930's, said Marshall, San Francisco has been leasing its water rights of the Tuolumne River from the US Federal Government at a sum of $30,000 per year." "That has not changed. Yet clearly our water needs have," he said.
Speaking on behalf of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, communications director Tyrone Jue affirmed, "yes that is true.” “But that’s only half the story," he said. Demolishing the dam and emptying the reservoir would be a considerable risk.
He noted that Hetch Hetchy is one of the most environmentally sound and efficient systems. It delivers naturally high quality pristine water directly to millions of people.
“The SF PUC contributes more than $5 million to maintain the Hetch Hetchy watershed and hundreds of miles of scenic hiking trails, said Jue."
"We just signed another agreement with the National Park Service for $30 million over the next five years." "We take our environmental stewardship responsibility very seriously," he said.
“The SF PUC is trying to dupe you,” said Marshall. “The 5 million is fee for services that the National Parks Service provides,” said Marshall.
He compared it to that of independent contract work. “The National Parks Service is simply being reimbursed for work that they perform on behalf of the SF PUC.” “Shame on the SF PUC for portraying it differently,” Marshall said.
Jue points out, if the Hetch Hetchy Valley were restored, then another valley or meadow area somewhere else would have to be submerged to store the water transferred from Hetch Hetchy. San Francisco and the surrounding areas would still have the same water needs.
Marshall in conversation said that on average San Francisco’s water consumption is about 82 million gallons per day.
According to the SF PUC, Jue clarified that the actual consumption of water for the San Francisco area varies from year to year. “The data currently shows about 65 to 68 million gallons daily.”
“That number seems awfully low to me,” said Marshall in response to Jue. “I don’t think it has fallen that far from the 82 million gallons mark of the last few years,” said Marshall.
Jue noted that several factors influence the usage of water, one being the weather and the economy. Since the onset of the current economic recession with the closing or downsizing of businesses water use has also dropped.
Jue also mentioned that since 1990 the SF PUC has aggressively sought ways to reduce water use and to promote efficiency. Which is why according to Jue, San Francisco has the lowest water use for an average household per capita in the entire State of California.
Still Marshall expressed skepticism. “San Francisco has the lowest per capita because we don’t have front yards, swimming pools or many days of over 100-degree heat,” said Marshall.
He believes the figures SF PUC presents are misleading. But again, one important question Marshall and his nonprofit group seem to overlook is this, the idea to restore Hetch Hetchy will need some very detailed, complicated and costly planning.
How will this plan work precisely? How will it make an already well-established and pristine water system that serves millions of people better?
Marshall and his colleagues want to re-open that debate which was fiercely upheld by pioneering nature conservationist John Muir and the Sierra Club in 1901.
Those in favor of restoring Hetch Hetchy are asking San Francisco voters to consider the alternatives to the dam and reservoir which has met the SF Bay Area water needs for over 85 years.
The pristine Tuolumne River that flows along the valley floor was originally surrounded by flowered meadows and ancient forests teeming with bears, bobcats, rushes and eagles. Marshall and his group want the Hetch Hetchy restored to that condition as one of the most unique and diverse ecosystems in the world.
Marshall noted that research has been conducted to illustrate that alternatives can be sought. In a 13-page report published in the Journal of The American Water Resources in April of 2006, researchers at the University of California, Davis, explored water supply alternatives for San Francisco.
if O'Shaughnessy Dam were removed, allowing the Hetch Hetchy Valley to be restored the most likely scenario would be to enlarge and expand the Don Pedro Reservoir.
A pipeline between the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct and the much larger New Don Pedro Reservoir downstream would allow almost all of the water captured at O'Shaughnessy Dam to be captured downstream with little loss of water quality. According to the report, drinking water supply is less of a problem than the costs.
This reporter talked with Professor Jay Lund, who co-authored the study in 2006. Lund said that based upon the data he gathered, it is not so much about water as it is about the costs. In theory based upon the study an alternative could work. But the report is not able to surmise how everything will work in practice.
In the effort to create a new water storage area, what complications may or will most likely occur? Even if enlarging or extending the Don Pedro Reservoir to accommodate the water from Hetch Hetchy, how will that impact the current existing environment at Don Pedro Reservoir?
The report notes that the water at Hetch Hetchy holds high quality water. The watershed above the dam is pristine. Why disrupt that system to restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley floor? Doing so would obviously place the pristine water quality and current efficient storage and delivery system at risk.
The SF PUC is diligent and very serious about keeping the water quality pristine and the delivery system as direct-to-the people as possible.
Dismantling and demolishing the current water system would require additional management. That is not detailed very clearly in the 2006 research.
The estimated cost to empty the reservoir and then demolish it along with the dam would be between three to 10 billion dollars.
When this reporter talked to environmentalist and water-use data analyst Spreck Rosenkrans who supports Restore Hetch Hetchy campaign he believed funding could be established for the project.
Even amid the current economic recession, he still believes funds could be raised and that restoring Hetch Hetchy would be vital.
Despite the anticipated five percent shortfall of water supply once a new system was in place, Rosenkrans remains optimistic. Due to the need for extra pumping and then contract arrangements with other entities to make up the difference, there would be potential set backs.
These set backs are not detailed and become vague when hearing the Restore Hetch Hetchy campaign argument. Even the 2006 report mentions that arguments for removing the O'Shaughnessy Dam primarily center around ethical concerns and increasing open space in Yosemite National Park for tourism and recreation.
Still the question remains is restoring a valley floor worth risking the pristine-water needs of millions of people?
The report also notes that if alternatives were found and established, water treatment would be required. That in itself compromises the high water quality. And what about the shortfall - loss of water if the restoration project was to be carried out?
It is not clear what the exact ratio of that five percent shortfall would be. (Is it in respect to hundreds, thousands or billions of gallons of water?) And it is not exact how easily it could be resolved.
What if complications occur? What if other water supplies to make up for that five percent shortfall become deficient? What if various agencies or the other counties cannot or perhaps will not cooperate?
Many people and entities at various levels would have to agree to such an ambitious and billion dollar project.
Drought is always near in California - even in wet years rainfall is not always consistent to meet an ever-growing population’s demand.
While U.C. Davis research Professor Lund reiterated that an alternative reservoir and delivery system could be established he also reiterated that it would be costly. Other costs would also have to be included such as treatment and filtration, etc.
Would the public agree to this project considering its cost and potential complications? How would legislation work to support this endeavor?
Marshall and Rosenkrans say that based upon the research studies done, such a project is possible.
Grants, venture capital, loans or perhaps some sort of public-private partnership, could work.
Yet Rosenkrans was adamant to say that no fees or taxes would be demanded of the water customers.
Yet what about the costs acquired for filtration and treatment? The alternative storage site and new system if found and built would not have direct access to the pristine watershed at Hetch Hetchy.
The formal research report noted that extensive treatment and water filtration would be required if Hetch Hetchy were restored and current water system moved elsewhere.
And in speaking with Lund by phone, he said that the filtration and treatment itself would be of considerable cost. How would that be paid for? What if it were an annual cost that increased over time?
Most of this plan is speculative at this point as Restore Hetch Hetchy campaign is still at the proposal stages.
Despite the obstacles especially in costs, Rosenkrans is in favor of the Restore Hetch Hetchy effort and said by phone that “restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley would make the strongest statement in support of the environment.”
Like Marshall Rosenkrans believes that restoring the valley would initiate more serious efforts to manage and replenish water sources for an ever-growing population.
Replenishing groundwater, recycling water and finding ways to capture and store rainwater is something that those at Restore Hetch Hetchy hope California will lead the way in for the future.
SF PUC agrees with Marshall on that point that water resources and management of them is very serious for the future. But the SF PUC disagrees with Marshall and his group that demolishing the existing dam and reservoir at Hetch Hetchy is a viable idea.
While collecting comments back and forth from the two sides, (Restore Hetch Hetchy and the SF Public Utilities Commission) the tension between the two sides on this topic became terse.
SF PUC respectfully sought only to clarify their position on the matter. Dialog back and forth ceased and this reporter was asked to simply review what had already been stated officially.
Arthur R. Jensen, Chief Executive Officer of the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency expressed most of the SF PUC’s thoughts on the subject. Here is what he sent to Digital Journal News in a formal statement.
Advocates for the plan to drain Hetch Hetchy reservoir or tear down the dam see it as a way to reverse a U.S. government decision of almost 100 years ago, which has provided vital water for Bay Area people and its economy, and recreate the Hetch Hetchy Valley.
BAWSCA and other organizations who represent the water interests of 1.7 million residents, large and small businesses, schools, hospitals, senior centers, and other community organizations, see a plan that poses huge risks to safety, health and economic well-being of the people and enormous costs for taxpayers.
Elected policy makers in Sacramento and Washington, DC will ultimately decide the fate of this proposal, and their first priority must be to protect the health and safety of the people, the economy, and the community institutions in the Bay Area’s four counties that depend on Hetch Hetchy water.
They must also decide if this is the wisest use of California’s and the nation's limited financial resources, when there are so many other pressing environmental and infrastructure needs.
BAWSCA's position is that elected policy makers must address five major requirements with all the facts before any responsible decision can be made.
In his formal statement from July of 2005, Jensen said, “BAWSCA will oppose any proposal to drain Hetch Hetchy Reservoir unless these requirements are met and the Bay Area people are protected, the economy is supported, and the communities are satisfied.
Jensen noted that the requirements are:
1. No delay in rebuilding the earthquake-vulnerable Hetch Hetchy system caused by a program to drain the reservoir or destroy the dam.
2. No change in the quality of water delivered to San Francisco’s customers.
3. No increase in the cost of water for San Francisco’s customers. Any increased capital, operating, maintenance and administrative costs resulting from draining or destroying the dam should not be borne by the existing or future water customers of the system through their water bills.
4. No change in physical facilities or institutional arrangements should reduce water supplies or expose existing and future water customers to more frequent or severe water shortages.
5. No modifications to the existing water system or its operation until all replacement facilities are funded, built and operational, and all institutional arrangements are in place, and fully funded.
Marshall and Rosenkrans remain steadfast that an alternative for water storage and delivery can be established and that Hetch Hetchy Valley must be restored to protect and preserve the natural habitat and environment that is part of the Yosemite National Park.
For more information about the Restore Hetch Hetchy campaign visit
And to view the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission on the subject visit: