YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. – This fall San Franciscans will vote on a local measure with national implications: It could return to the American people a flooded gorge described as the twin of breathtaking Yosemite Valley.
Voters will decide whether they want a plan for draining the 117-billion-gallon Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park, exposing for the first time in 80 years a glacially carved, granite-ringed valley of towering waterfalls 17 miles north of its more famous geologic sibling.
The November ballot measure asks: Should city officials devise a modern water plan that incorporates recycling and study expansion of other storage reservoirs to make up the loss?
The measure could eventually undo a controversial century-old decision by Congress that created the only reservoir in a national park and slaked the thirst of a city 190 miles away.
The battle over Hetch Hetchy, first waged unsuccessfully by naturalist John Muir, had turned the Sierra Club from an outdoors group into an environmental powerhouse. The fight gained momentum in recent years when unlikely allies joined forces.
On one side are Republican lawmakers and environmentalists, including Ronald Reagan’s former interior secretary, who want the dam removed and valley restored. On the other are Democratic San Franciscans, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, fighting to hold onto the city’s famously pure drinking water in a drought-prone state.
“Eventually it will be broadly understood what an abomination a reservoir in a valley like Yosemite Valley really is,” Donald Hodel, the former interior chief, told the Associated Press. “I think it will be hard to quell this idea (of restoration). It is like ideas of freedom in a totalitarian regime. Once planted they are impossible to repress forever.”
Over the past decade, studies by the state and others have shown it’s possible for San Francisco to continue collecting water from the Tuolumne River farther downstream.
But the city never seriously has considered giving up its claim to the valley.
“This is a ridiculous idea,” Mayor Ed Lee said. “It’s a Trojan horse for those that wish to have our public tricked into believing we have an adequate substitute for the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. We do not. There isn’t any.”
The gravity-fed system serves 7 percent of California’s population, city water officials say. Turbines from its dams generate hydroelectric power for city buildings, streetlights and traffic signals, the airport and the transit system. And two-thirds of the water from the system is sold to neighboring municipalities.
All of this for just $30,000 a year. That was the rent set by Congress when it passed the Raker Act in 1913, giving San Francisco exclusive control and use of the Hetch Hetchy valley.
“San Francisco is known as a progressive city in many ways, especially environmentally. But in water, it’s just not the case. We’ve got a very sweet deal,” said Spreck Rosekrans of Restore Hetch Hetchy, who has studied the issue for 20 years. “Restoring the valley would undo the greatest wrong that has ever been done to a national park.”
Studies by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, the state Department of Water Resources and others show restoring the valley is technically feasible. The cost estimates range from $3 billion to $10 billion.