Editorial Monday – Hetch Hetchy Restoration An Example of Pushing Too Far

The massive Hetch Hetchy reservoir, which provides almost 100% of San Francsico’s water and a fair amount of hydroelectric power would never be built today. For one thing, it’s actually inside Yosemite National Park. For another thing, its construction submerged one of the most beautiful and pristine valleys in the world. But in 1913, despite John Muir’s best efforts, building dams was a lot easier than it is today, and the O’Shaughnessy dam went up and Hetch Hetchy went under.
Now, a number of groups (hetchhetchy.org) are working hard to remove the dam and restore the valley to it’s pristine state. It’s a nobel task with a nobel purpose. Even so, my opinion is that the movement is tragically misguided and that leaving the dam in place for the forseeable future is a better solution. Here’s why:
The cost for removal of the dam and the construction of new replacement reserviors is estimated to be $3 billion to $10 billion – that’s an unacceptable cost for something that, in the context of a multitude of other priorities which that money could be spent on, is essentially asthetic. It also says nothing about the decline in the quality of water that will replace the purer water from Hetch Hetchy which I rather enjoy drinking. It also gives a bad name to environmentalists and makes us seem dangerously pushy in an era where much of the population still doesn’t quite “get it” when it comes to environmental and economic balance. Finally, what of a replacement for the clean hydroelectric power that the dam produces?
The loss of Hetch Hetchy was indeed a tragedy, but it’s a done deal and now is not the time to start talking about repairing it. Maybe in 50 years we can go there, but I think the issue should be laid to rest for the time being.
(See more in this eMagazine article)

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of TriplePundit.com

TriplePundit.com has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

4 responses

  1. One of the difficulties with issues of any complexity is that some are prone to start expressing strong opinions, while simply having their facts and assumptions wrong. Mr. Aster’s piece is a classic example.
    He starts off by referring to Hetch Hetchy reservoir as being “massive”. It’s all relative. Hetch Hetchy is only California’s 20th largest reservoir, holding a relative puny 350,000 acre feet of water. He then buys “hook, line and sinker” the Dept. of Water Resources $3 – 10 billion cost estimate. Even a cursory reading of the report (not the SF Chronicle’s coverage of it) quickly reveals that DWR built in replacement water facilities with capacities running from two to four times the capacity of Hetch Hetchy. There should be a debate about NEW capacity in California; but the cost of any new capacity should not be charged to Hetch Hetchy restoration. Meanwhile, our organization stands by its $1 billion estimate.
    Nick then characterizes valley restoration as being essentially “asthetic” (sic). California’s population is growing and that growing population needs outdoor recreational outlets for camping, river fishing, boating, bicycling, leisure hiking, and the like. Yosemite Valley used to provide that, but all now complain that Yosemite Valley is too crowded. And under current SFPUC policies at Hetch Hetchy —- no bikes, no dogs, no boats, no swimming — there’s little relief. Meanwhile, some (like SFPUC President Richard Sklar) will respond that we need more water to accommodate that growing population, so let’s increase the size of Hetch Hetchy. See Peter Glieck’s excellent work at pacinst.org to be convinced that we can get along with existing water supplies for a long time to come.
    Once again proving that homework is important, Nick assumes that there will be a “decline in water quality”. Wrong again. Under all the alternative proposals the water will still come from the Tuolumne River. Under most, filtration will be required, as should be the case now. There are two studies –one by NRDC and one by Environmental Working Group — that belie the myth that SFPUC water is so “pure”. It may taste OK, but if you’ve got a compromised immune system, watch out.
    Nick’s biggest mistake is assuming that proposing Hetch Hetchy Valley restoration will give a “bad name to environmentalists”. We’re kind of proud that our supporters include no less than four former California Resources Secretaries (Ike Livermore, Huey Johnson, Doug Wheeler, Mary Nichols) and Don Hodel, head of President Reagan’s Energy Dept. and Interior Dept.
    Finally, Nick rhetorically asks about replacement of the miniscule energy that would be lost by removal of the dam. To SF’s credit, it is a leader in solar power. By the time the reservoir is removed that should more than make up for the loss. Meanwhile, SF ought to join the rest of the state and get into the water recycling business.
    Jerry Cadagan
    Board Chair, Restore Hetch Hetchy

  2. Jerry – excelent reply, thanks. I’m still not 100% behind the idea of spending even $1 Billion, which is still an awful lot of dough, but you’ve definitely shed some light on the issue which I appreciate. I was mostly trying to be pragmatic in the context of the many other things we could spend a that kind of money on.
    Anyway given the choice, I’d like to see Glen Canyon Dam come down first – there’s a place where more water is lost to evaporation that gets used for anything and (I’m guessing) most of the electricity is lost in transmission because the dam is so far from anything.

Leave a Reply