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Should they drain Hetch Hetchy?

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Should they drain Hetch Hetchy?

Postby copeg » Thu Jul 20, 2006 6:40 am

Posted on Thu, Jul. 20, 2006

Should they drain Hetch Hetchy?
By Paul Rogers
Mercury News

It is technically feasible to tear down the dam and drain the reservoir at Yosemite National Park's Hetch Hetchy Valley, a wilderness area considered as magnificent as Yosemite Valley before it was submerged 82 years ago, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration announced Wednesday.

But it would cost $3 billion to $10 billion.

And because the Hetch Hetchy system provides water to 2.4 million Bay Area residents, years of new studies would be needed first, according to a report from the state Department of Water Resources.

Despite no funding source and adamant opposition from the city of San Francisco, Bay Area business groups and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., environmentalists cheered the study -- the first time a California governor has considered tearing down parts of a major water project. They said it provides new momentum to their decades-long crusade.

``We are on course to correct a terrible environmental tragedy,'' said Tom Graff, California director for Environmental Defense, a conservation group based in Oakland. ``In the 21st century, we have better solutions for water storage and power supply. If we don't have to use one of America's spectacular natural cathedrals as a reservoir, we shouldn't.''

Opponents said the study reinforces how far-fetched and impractical the idea is.

``Hetch Hetchy is a critical source of water and power for the state of California,'' Feinstein said. ``Draining the reservoir would be far too expensive and leave the state vulnerable to both drought and blackout.''

Located about 15 miles north of Yosemite Valley, Hetch Hetchy is named after a Miwok Indian word that refers to a type of grass growing in the Sierra Nevada. Similar to Yosemite Valley, which draws 4 million tourists a year, it is framed by granite walls, waterfalls and pine forests, and once had rich wildlife and the Tuolumne River meandering through its meadows.

Quake influential

After the 1906 earthquake sparked fires that burned more than 500 blocks of downtown San Francisco, Congress eventually approved in 1913 long-running demands from San Francisco leaders to construct O'Shaughnessy Dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley.

It was finished in 1924 and the valley submerged.

Today, the water -- a snowmelt so pure it doesn't have to be treated -- flows for 160 miles through gravity-fed pipes to the Bay Area. The project's most prominent local feature is Crystal Springs Reservoir along Interstate 280 in San Mateo County.

Its water serves San Francisco and 28 other cities, including Palo Alto, Los Altos Hills, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale and Mountain View. San Jose receives only 3 percent of its water from Hetch Hetchy. Most San Jose water comes from groundwater and from San Francisco Bay's delta.

Environmentalists have opposed a dam at Hetch Hetchy since Sierra Club founder John Muir unsuccessfully fought to block construction 95 years ago, calling the valley ``one of nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples.''

Two years ago, new momentum gathered when Environmental Defense and the University of California-Davis released studies showing the project was feasible, and when Tom Philp, an editorial writer for the Sacramento Bee, won the Pulitzer Prize for his editorials championing the restoration effort.

Schwarzenegger agreed to study the issue.

Wednesday's report examined 30 years of studies. It does not endorse or oppose draining the reservoir, but says from an engineering standpoint it could be done and the water and power replaced elsewhere.

Steps necessary

It notes that if the reservoir, which holds 360,000 acre feet of water -- enough for 1.8 million people for a year -- were drained, new water storage would have to be found. That could include everything from new groundwater storage to expanding reservoirs such as Don Pedro in Tuolumne County, Calaveras in Santa Clara County or Los Vaqueros in Contra Costa County. Also, the hydropower electricity produced by the project -- about 400 megawatts -- would have to be replaced, probably by building power plants.

``There's nothing in here that says from a technical standpoint, it is infeasible,'' said Gary Bardini, the state's chief hydrologist. ``But ultimately, whether the public is willing to commit to a project of this nature, we can't say.''

Restoration process

A 2003 study by UC-Davis found that plants and grasses would return in two years, shrubs and small trees 10 years later, with large trees returning in 50 to 100 years. The bathtub ring -- bleaching of the granite walls -- around the valley would remain for 100 years or more until lichen and natural processes faded it.

Because the reservoir is on federal land, it would require an act of Congress to drain it, Bardini said.

Schwarzenegger was noncommittal when asked about the idea Wednesday in San Francisco.

``It is in the studying stage,'' he said. ``We are looking at it, and there are many more questions that have to be answered. I think this will go on for a while because there's a lot we don't know.''

Indeed, Sue Sims, a spokeswoman for the Department of Water Resources, said the next step doesn't lie with the state but with the federal government.

One state lawmaker, Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Davis, said however, that in August she will hold hearings in Sacramento on the issue.

``The possibility of restoring this national wonder while meeting California's water and power needs is worthy of consideration,'' she said. ``We've asked people to keep an open mind.''

Wolk noted that Los Angeles for years opposed restoring Mono Lake in the eastern Sierra, but finally agreed to take less water from it after losing court battles. Today it has made up the difference with water conservation.

Officials at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, who are working on a $4.3 billion upgrade to the Hetch Hetchy system through 2015, said they oppose the idea because the costs are huge, water quality from other sources wouldn't be as good, and billions for new filtration and pumping plants would have to be spent. Also, they noted, tax money is needed for more pressing projects, such as shoring delta levees and building roads and schools.

``Anything is feasible if you are willing to spend a virtually unlimited amount of money,'' said San Francisco PUC spokesman Tony Winnicker. ``This is a fairly whimsical proposal. There's no state analysis that says we need less water storage and less clean power -- both of which this system provides.''

Nevertheless environmentalists beamed.

``I'm 68 years old. I've got four children and five grandchildren,'' said Jerry Cadagan, board chairman of Restore Hetch Hetchy, a Sonora group. ``We owe it to the next generation. Let's leave them a second Yosemite Valley.''

To see the full report, go to

Contact Paul Rogers at or (408) 920-5045.

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Postby SSSdave » Thu Jul 20, 2006 7:31 am

Not now or in any near decade unless money starts raining down on the state. Way way too expensive without much benefit for decades. Yes in the further future. Even a fraction of the 3 to 10 billion dollar cost could be much better spent improving our state parks and buying up sensitive areas. There is a long list of places that are likely to be developed by the mindless pro growth legions unless concerned people of this generation stand up and protect those lands. Once sprawl and other development occurs, such places are lost forever. ...David
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Postby markskor » Thu Jul 20, 2006 1:40 pm

“It is technically feasible to tear down the dam and drain the reservoir at Yosemite National Park's Hetch Hetchy Valley, a wilderness area considered as magnificent as Yosemite Valley before it was submerged 82 years ago, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration announced Wednesday.
But it would cost $3 billion to $10 billion.”

I offer why tear it down…just drain the sucker and leave it be. Then put a big plaque on it as a permanent monument to man’s past follies and save the $3 billion cost of taking the damn thing apart. It would make a nice bridge.
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Postby ERIC » Thu Jul 20, 2006 1:52 pm


Hey, better yet... Why don't we take a page from the Berlin Wall and just let people beat on it with sledge hammers! :p
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Postby Zoltan » Wed Jul 26, 2006 5:57 pm

I've spent a lot of time in the Hetch Hetchy/Pate Valley area (just got back actually) and while the reservoir is an affront and certainly makes accessing the Grand Canyon a LOT tougher, I can't help but think that if the dam had never been built Hetch Hetchy and Pate Valleys might be industrialized to the level of Yosemite valley, and the hike up the Tuolumne Canyon would be very similar to the Mist Trail out of the Valley in terms of crowds.

Best I can say for the dam is it keeps the crowds away from an amazing area.

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Postby dave54 » Fri Jul 28, 2006 8:30 am

It's a bad idea.

California has a growing population that needs an increasing amount of water. Conservation is only a very small limited solution to California's future water needs. Couple this with long-term climate forecasts that future precipitation patterns in the West will be more drought-flood cycles with an overall decrease in total water supply, and there is a greatly increased need for water management.

The complex arrangement dreamed up as the alternative to Hetch Hetchy is just an expensive and resource-diverting means of maintaining the status quo. The future needs more water storage, not just keeping the present levels. We will need the OS dam PLUS additional management.

Removing the dam just means an additional dam will eventually have to built elsewhere to replace it, on top of all the future needs.
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Postby Randonnee » Fri Jul 28, 2006 11:56 am

My question would be -- Have we learned from the overdevelopment of Yosemite Valley or would they start building as soon as the water was removed?
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Postby giantbrookie » Fri Jul 28, 2006 11:59 am

Me thinks we've had a long thread on the older generation of this board, but... I don't think dismantling HH is a good idea, even though I think original dam should have been built elsewhere (there are some good potential damsites downstream outside of the park). I like to think in some ways that the reservoir is filled with the tears of John Muir who died in frustration after trying his best to stop the dam.

That having been said, I believe there are some serious flaws to the various schemes to dismantle HH, although, granted, I have not really studied them in exhaustive detail. The first big problem, as mentioned above, is that in these days of increasing water demand, you simply don't remove an enormous amount of water storage (360000 acre feet) without replacing it with more somewhere else--This means another dam with a reservoir of comparable or larger storage somewhere else. The other problem not mentioned here is that HH is the upstream control of SF's rather productive hydroelectric system, so removing HH deprives SF of more than just water storage.

In the meantime, HH's presence isn't all that bad. It prevents another cluster of Yosemite Valley like concessions built along the Tuolumne. It keeps a lot of visitors out of NW Yosemite, making that area a much more attractive backcountry destination, and it provides some absolutely superb fishing. No, I don't think the dam should have been built in the first place, but at this point replacing it seems not to offer enough positives to justify the cost.
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Postby mikehike » Sat Jul 29, 2006 10:07 pm

What a huge waste of money....I guees the dream is tear down the hetch hetchy and we'll all conserve enough water to make up for it?....I love the enviroment but Im also realistic, it will never happen. Its political positioning, to try and get the enviromental votes in there corner. Also a smoke screen on whats really happening....

The real issue is re-vitalizarion of the San Jauquin River, which looks to be very real. Yet Will force Southern california to try and grab more water form the california aqueduct. ... 8795c.html

This looks like another huge mistake, restore the San Joaquin and suck more water above it when it hits the delta. Los Angeles needs a 3-4 desalinzation plants running on Nuclear Energy. Thats right Nuclear Power the cleanest form of energy used by the most liberal countries in the world....France...

The reality is overpopulation and limited resources theres no two ways around it, unless the Bird flu can wipe out a billion or two its a war of resources.....

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Postby mountaineer » Sat Jul 29, 2006 11:08 pm

I would be all for it with mitigation. Drain Hetch Hetchy but dam Yosemite Valley.
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Postby copeg » Mon Aug 07, 2006 1:53 pm

From San Jose Mercury News
Proposal to drain Hetch Hetchy falls flat with politicians
By Paul Rogers
Mercury News

Mention the environment, and many California politicians can't keep from gushing.

But among the state's top elected officials, the idea of draining the reservoir in Yosemite National Park's Hetch Hetchy Valley and tearing down its dam isn't exactly finding a flood of support.

In the two weeks since the Schwarzenegger administration released a report saying that restoring Hetch Hetchy is feasible but would cost $3 billion to $10 billion, not a single major California political leader has endorsed the idea.

Even the greenest politicians -- Bay Area Democrats who regularly win the endorsement of the Sierra Club and receive perfect ratings from the League of Conservation Voters -- remain non-committal at best.

None, from Democratic governor hopeful Phil Angelides to House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, say they support spending public money to fund more detailed engineering studies that would keep the idea moving forward. Some top Democrats, like Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., say they are too busy even to give interviews on the topic.


Some experts say it's because the plan would cost too much -- politically as much as financially. Backing the proposal would roil an influential area, San Francisco, by threatening to alter its pristine water supply, and already has business groups across the Bay Area up in arms.

Politicians, however, are loath to go public with that argument. Many work closely with environmentalists and would prefer to see the issue go away rather than differ with key allies.

Angering constituents

``They obviously are doing a cost-benefit analysis for themselves,'' said Sheldon Kamieniecki, dean of social sciences at the University of California-Santa Cruz. ``They are thinking, `I could go with the environmental groups, but if I do that it could invariably lead to constituency animosity.' ''

Kamieniecki, a longtime political scientist, said the issue is a rare instance akin to when Michigan Democrats oppose raising gas mileage standards over concerns it might hurt auto workers, even though environmental groups who endorse them have made the issue a top goal.

``It's great to have the Sierra Club's support, but you cannot replace that with votes,'' Kamieniecki said. ``It's also about risk-taking. Apparently in this case they don't want to take that risk.''

One Democratic congressional staff member familiar with the issue said it is awkward.

``Nobody in the Bay Area wants to take on an environmental group,'' the staff member said, asking to remain anonymous because of the controversial nature of the issue. ``They can leverage a lot of people, even though they might not cost you the election.''

In 1913 Congress gave in to requests from San Francisco leaders to construct O'Shaughnessy Dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley. And the valley, a scenic area 15 miles north of Yosemite Valley, was submerged in 1924.

Today, the water -- a snowmelt so pure it doesn't have to be filtered -- flows 160 miles to the Bay Area. It provides drinking water to 2.4 million from San Francisco to Santa Clara.

Environmentalists have opposed a dam at Hetch Hetchy for decades. Two years ago, new momentum gathered when the group Environmental Defense and the University of California-Davis released studies showing a removal project was feasible, and if Hetch Hetchy were drained, its water could be stored in new or enlarged reservoirs elsewhere. Gov. Schwarzenegger asked the state Department of Water Resources to evaluate them but has not taken a position, saying the next step is up to the federal government.

Backed by Garamendi

Among statewide officials, only Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi has come out in favor of draining Hetch Hetchy. He did that a year ago.

Among Democrats who could affect the outcome, Angelides has gone the furthest. He told the Mercury News this week that he wants to learn more about how the water and power would be replaced.

``John Muir said it well when he described Hetch Hetchy as one of nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples,'' Angelides said, paraphrasing the Sierra Club founder, ``but there are still many questions that need to be answered.''

Angelides said he wasn't ready to say whether he supports spending the $65 million that the state Department of Water Resources said is needed for complete engineering and legal studies.

Instead, he said, he wants to watch hearings that Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Vacaville, plans to hold in late August or September.

Others, like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., flatly say no way.

Need for consensus

Similarly, Boxer, who declined interview requests over four days, believes there should be no action unless all parties agree, her staff said. That's a near impossibility. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which runs the reservoir, is adamant that draining Hetch Hetchy would be a mistake, as are most leading Bay Area business groups.

``If there is no consensus, then a federally funded study should not be done,'' said Boxer spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz.

Pelosi is more succinct.

``She can't imagine them tearing it down, and particularly at such a high cost,'' said Brendan Dailey, a Pelosi spokesman. ``We don't support funding new studies.''

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, called the idea ``a practical impossibility'' because of the cost. And Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, isn't rushing behind the idea either.

``He would like to see more information but hasn't come out favoring a costly study,'' said Lynne Weil, a Lantos spokeswoman.

Environmentalists say they are not discouraged, and that they expect it to take years to build momentum. Some backers, including Wolk, say restoring Hetch Hetchy has a better chance of happening if it were part of a huge compromise between conservatives and liberals to expand California's water supply by building new reservoirs to hold more water than would be lost.

``It is surprising to me that people are so afraid of doing studies,'' said Tom Graff, California director for Environmental Defense, in Oakland. ``It seems they are worried about what might turn up.''

Contact Paul Rogers at or (408) 920-5045.
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