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Demolish O'Shaughnessy Dam?

It's amusing to watch the enviros in San Francisco defend their source of water after spending most of their political careers trying to destroy ours.

Jan 24, 2012

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Demolish O'Shaughnessy Dam?

I guess we should be enjoying the debate about Hetch Hetchy/O'Shaughnessy Dam more than we are. It's amusing to watch the enviros in San Francisco defend their source of water after spending most of their political careers trying to destroy ours. We just can't seem to get excited about the prospect of reducing any source of water storage in the state. As a matter of fact we are supportive of any efforts to increase storage capacity. It's just frustrating that we have to fight these hypocritical people who have buried a national treasure under their public utility and won't budge an inch to help us get more water by building dams in far less damaging places.

Congressman Dan Lungren is leading the charge on this, maybe just to point out the hypocrisy, or maybe he's serious. We don't really know. His article is the first below followed by a defense of Hetch Hetchy by Jim Wunderland, President and CEO of the Bay Area Council, followed by the San Francicso Chronicle's editorial.

Hetch Hetchy should be restored to natural state

Dan Lungren

What if someone were to tell you that California could have another Yosemite Valley? One might respond that it would be amazing but that only God could create such a remarkable wonder. Surprisingly, there is such a valley. It was created 10,000 years ago. It is called the Hetch Hetchy Valley and was described by John Muir as being "a grand landscape garden, one of Nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples." Hetch Hetchy Valley was home to a large variety of plant and animal species and was a stopping point for migratory birds.

However, 89 years ago, all this was lost. The valley was converted to a reservoir to serve the needs of San Francisco.

So how did one of nature's most beautiful sanctuaries, a jewel for millions of Americans, get converted into a water storage tank for a single city? The short answer: A ready supply of public land was available with no apparent practical alternative at a time when our frontier seemed endless.

What about now? Is the restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley possible now? Could this national treasure be returned to the American people and our national park system without jeopardizing the needs of San Francisco's citizens?

Amazingly, there have been recent studies that confirm that it is "technically feasible" to have the water supply in Hetch Hetchy stored elsewhere while mostly maintaining the current level of power generation.

For example, water from the Tuolumne River, currently feeding the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, could be allowed to flow into an expanded Don Pedro Reservoir, which is now six times the size of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

San Francisco paid for 51 percent of the construction of that reservoir, and one-third of that water belongs to the city. That is two times the amount of water stored in the Hetchy Hetchy Reservoir. Additionally, the city has two other reservoirs within a few miles of Hetch Hetchy that are only used for power production.

With this background, I recently wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar requesting that he investigate whether San Francisco is in direct violation of the Raker Act. Amid great controversy, Congress in 1913 passed this act, authorizing the flooding of the valley. However, there are provisions of the act that require San Francisco to be responsible for exhausting all local water resources before a of Tuolumne River water is diverted.

Today, San Francisco does zero water recycling - zero. While Sacramento is stepping up water recycling, and 20 percent of the tap water in Orange County is recycled, San Francisco doesn't recycle a single .

In 1930, before the Hetch Hetchy water came on line, San Francisco pumped 14.5 million gallons per day of groundwater. Today it pumps less than 3 million gallons per day. This appears to fly in the face of the Raker Act.

Incredibly, the price the federal government charges San Franciscans for the rights to this pristine national park water is but $30,000 per year. That may have been a lot of money in 1913, but that is still what is paid today.

At a minimum, it seems that San Francisco should be held in compliance with the Raker Act and do its part to conserve and recycle water. Yet I have another dream. I hope the largely unspoken possibility of restoring Hetch Hetchy to its natural state might become the subject of a national debate.

To my knowledge, there is no other national park that is currently occupied by a municipal utility. Americans have been deprived of this national treasure for nearly a century, and it is now time to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Ultimately, it will take enormous cooperation among local, state, and federal officials. And the cost of this endeavor will be substantial - probably into the billions of dollars. Yet the gift we would present to our ecosystem, children, grandchildren and the world would be priceless.

How does recycling of water stack up in California?

The volume of water reused annually in acre-feet by some key agencies:

California total

L.A. County sanitation districts

Orange County Water District

L.A. County Water and Power

San Diego

City of San Jose

Sacramento County Water Agency

L.A. County Public Works

San FranciscoxPublic Utilities Commission

Source: State Water Resources Control Board 2009 Wastewater Recycling Survey

Dan Lungren, a Republican, represents suburban Sacramento County in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Hetch Hetchy an invaluable source of water, power

Jim Wunderman


The Hetch Hetchy water system serves pristine drinking water to 2.6 million residents from Hayward to San Jose to San Francisco in a region that is among the world's most economically productive. Despite the Hetch Hetchy Regional Water and Power System's enormous importance, a serious movement is afoot to eliminate our water system. The basis of the fight is that we are wasteful guzzlers of this precious water. The facts tell a different story.

Few regions in California are more miserly with their water than the 33 cities in Alameda, Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties served by Hetch Hetchy.

San Francisco alone uses less than half as much water per person - 88 gallons per day - as the statewide average of 192 gallons per day per person. Among the other cities in the Hetch Hetchy system, the figure is an even stingier 79 gallons per day. The Hetch Hetchy system, operated by San Francisco's Public Utilities Commission, rose from the ashes of the 1906 earthquake and fire in which San Francisco burned to the ground because of inadequate and unreliable water sources. City leaders determined to avoid a tragic repeat won congressional approval in 1913 under the Raker Act to build Hetch Hetchy.

In the decades since, we have adopted aggressive water conservation policies including stringent building, landscaping and plumbing codes and cutting-edge efficiency, pricing and management practices and programs, including water recycling (we will begin using recycled water to irrigate city golf courses this year). We continue to increase conservation and identify other new sources of water.

And yet, Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River (Sacramento County), and Mike Marshall, the executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy, have partnered to argue that we are violating our obligation under the Raker Act to conserve water. They contend the water currently stored at Hetch Hetchy could be stored elsewhere, including by expanding the Don Pedro Reservoir in the Sierra foothills.

Although Lungren frames the issue as having to do with water conservation and his own personal love of Yosemite, the Republican legislator's motives would appear to have more to do with taking a partisan shot at San Francisco. Residents in his district - not including farmers - are among the highest water users in the state, consuming more than four times what residents served by Hetch Hetchy use. His move could have real consequences for our region; politics should not be the basis for our water policy.

Hetch Hetchy is well known for its pure water. No replacement scenario, even one which incorporates expensive filtration systems, could come close to matching it. Removing the gravity-fed, carbon-negative Hetch Hetchy water-delivery system also eliminates 1.6 billion kilowatt-hours of clean hydroelectric power that keeps Muni running, the lights on at San Francisco General and the cable cars rolling.

Since the Raker Act was passed, California's population has grown from 3 million to 36 million people. With population growth has come increasingly desperate demands for more water supplies, particularly as climate change threatens to reduce our ability to store water as snowpack. A study by the Environmental Defense Fund, which forms the basis of the plan being advanced by Lungren and Marshall, acknowledges that in 1 out of every 5 years, the Bay Area would be subject to severe drought.

In the current era, largely because of protective environmental laws, building more water storage facilities is next to impossible. If the Bay Area lost Hetch Hetchy, we would lose both our guaranteed, hyper-pure water source and move from essentially the front of the line in our water rights to the very end.

And let's not forget the cost. The California Department of Water Resources in 2006 pegged the cost of shutting down Hetch Hetchy at $10 billion. We suspect the cost would be much higher, if our experience with large infrastructure projects in California has taught us anything.

California has plenty of high-priority issues when it comes to managing our existing water system and meeting the increased demand from a growing population. With all of California's infrastructure needs, spending $10 billion of taxpayer money to remove an efficient and environmentally beneficial water-storage and delivery system - one that also supplies a critical source of clean power - shouldn't be among those priorities.

San Francisco Water Use

San Francisco is working toward using more recycled water and groundwater. It will augment current use of Hetch Hetchy water, which is used at the rate of 88 gallons per person per day - half the statewide average of 192 GPD and less water than almost any other place in California.


Groundwater{+1}: 2,240 acre-feet per year

Recycled water{+2}: 0 acre-feet per year


Groundwater: Up to 7,840 acre-feet a year

Recycled water: Will irrigate Harding Park and Sharp Park golf courses this year. Some 4,480 acre-feet per year will be used for other irrigation uses by 2022.
Note: 1 million GPD = 1,120 acre-feet per year
{+1} Groundwater costs about $1,340 per acre-foot. {+2} Recycled water is reclaimed sewage water. Depending on the level of treatment needed to meet state health standards, recycled water costs $3,400 per acre-foot to $7,600 per acre-foot.

Source: San Francisco Public Utilities Commission

Jim Wunderman is the president and CEO of the Bay Area Council.

San Francisco Chronicle Editorial: Let The Dam at Hetch Hetchy Stand

You can't be serious, Congressman. Rep. Dan Lungren, a Sacramento-area Republican, is prodding the Interior Department to investigate San Francisco's operation of the Hetch Hetchy water and power system, perched in the Sierra near fabled Yosemite Valley. It's the latest rerun of a nonsensical sideshow that aims to take out a dam that provides water for 2.4 million people.

Lungren, who must know how remote his chances are, is joining a tiny crusade to turn back the clock on a decision made nearly a century ago to flood a granite-walled valley for the benefit of San Francisco and three other Bay Area counties.

At the heart of the congressman's complaint is the wish to demolish O'Shaughnessy Dam, the centerpiece of the system. The structure holds back a miles-long, 300-foot-deep lake covering the valley that famed naturalist John Muir said rivaled Yosemite.

For years, the dreamy idea of tearing out the dam and restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley has endured. But it has been rejected time and again as impractical and expensive. Lungren's twist is to add congressional payback and the imprimatur of a conservative Republican to a holy-sounding enviro cause.

His pitch is all birds and butterflies. Taking out the dam will restore the valley's meadows and majestic rock faces, he intones. It's a borrowed vision handed to him by fringe environmentalists yearning to restore the submerged valley.

Left out of this woodsy vision are the enormous costs. One state study estimated the bill at between $3 billion and $10 billion. There's no source of money lined up to pay for the demolition and restoration work.

So why is Lungren spouting a far-fetched idea with zero likelihood of happening? It's "all about politics," a dismissive Mayor Ed Lee said in a recent meeting with Chronicle editors and reporters.

Lungren is having fun needling San Francisco's Democratic leadership (think Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi) on behalf of Central Valley House members who want more water for agriculture. The Bay Area's legislators, who want a balanced approach on water use, are getting a dose of payback courtesy of Lungren and his allies.

In making his pitch, the congressman is asking Interior officials to consider whether San Francisco is wasting Tuolumne River water by not tapping local sources such as rain runoff, wells and recycled water. The city already irrigates many of its parks from underground sources and is working on expanding recycling efforts as it tools up a multibillion-dollar of the water system.

Lungren says he's a Yosemite lover from way back, but he's also owner of abysmal ratings from a string of environmental groups. This is a guy who never met a dam he didn't like until he found one run by his liberal foes in San Francisco.

California faces genuine water issues. A growing population needs more water, and agriculture wants a stable share as well. But a fanciful idea to tear down the dam achieves nothing in pushing the state forward. This is one notion to dismiss.

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