Posted on Wed, Feb. 07, 2007
Bush budget proposes Hetch Hetchy study
RESTORATION ADVOCATES SURPRISED, PLEASED
By Douglas Fischer
It's no more than a drop in this year's proposed federal budget, but it could unleash a torrent of controversy in the debate over Hetchy Hetchy's future.
In something of a quiet surprise, the Bush administration is offering $7 million to study restoring the dammed Yosemite valley, the source of drinking water for 2.4 million people from San Francisco to Santa Clara.
The earmark matches the California Department of Water Resources' cost estimate for the next study phase of the project, deemed feasible last summer but expected to cost $3 billion to $10 billion. And it's likely to draw vitriol from some of the region's most powerful players, notably Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a strident critic of any effort to remove O'Shaughnessy Dam.
But Tuesday it was those arguing for the valley's restoration who were most surprised.
``At this point, I don't know where this is going,'' said Jerry Cadagan, chairman of the board for Restore Hetch Hetchy. ``This came as a very big surprise to a bunch of us today. We're just going to see where it goes.
``Obviously, we're delighted. This is a way of keeping the issue alive.''
The line item, deep in President Bush's $2.9 trillion budget plan, is simply the latest in a chain of fateful and fortuitous breaks in what was once seen as the most quixotic environmental quest in California: the restoration of the Hetch Hetchy Valley and the destruction of a reservoir that for nearly 80 years has provided some of the purest drinking water in America.
In 2004, Environmental Defense released a report assessing the economics of removing the dam. The Legislature followed up by directing state agencies to review the evidence on restoring the valley. That assessment, finished last year, laid out a series of next steps, the first of which is a $7 million study to better map out the details.
That, Cadagan said Tuesday, is what the federal government has proposed to do.
``For whatever reason, the Bush administration has decided, `Yeah, we're going to at least go along to the tune of $7 million,' '' he said. ``Up until today, that's been a huge unknown.''
The money is peanuts compared with the price of restoration, which would rank as one of the state's costliest. The state faces a $10 billion price tag to restore the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, $2 billion to restore the Owens Valley, $6 billion for the Salton Sea and as much as $16 billion for flood management projects.
Who would pay remains a fundamental -- and unanswered -- question.
Art Jensen, director of the Bay Area Water Users Association, which helps sell Hetch Hetchy water to Bay Area cities, said, ``If it goes forward, our concern is that the customer is not impacted -- there's a replacement supply as reliable or more reliable, the quality is not diminished and they not pay for it.''
Officials with the Department of the Interior and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which runs the Hetch Hetchy System, were unavailable for comment late Tuesday.
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