From the San Jose Mercury News
Call to expand Hetch Hetchy sparks howls of protest
By Paul Rogers
San Francisco's top water official on Tuesday said that rather than tearing down the reservoir and dam at Yosemite National Park's Hetch Hetchy Valley, the city should consider building the dam higher and flooding more of the park.
Richard Sklar, president of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which owns and operates the Hetch Hetchy water system, made the suggestion during a global warming hearing that the PUC held at San Francisco City Hall.
If O'Shaughnessy Dam was raised taller, and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir was expanded, Sklar said, it could store more water when global warming melts the Sierra Nevada snowpack earlier every spring, as state hydrologists are predicting.
Sklar, a 71-year-old Democrat, is a longtime and well-respected fixture in San Francisco politics. His bombshell idea -- one of several suggestions he made for dealing with global warming -- was met with howls of protest by environmentalists afterward.
``Further desecration of one of America's most treasured national parks is a bad idea,'' said Tom Graff, state director for Environmental Defense, in Oakland.
In recent years, some environmentalists have stepped up a campaign to drain the reservoir, tear down the dam and store its drinking water -- which serves 2.4 million residents from San Francisco to Santa Clara -- in other reservoirs. The idea gained momentum last month when a report from the state Department of Water Resources found it technically feasible to drain the reservoir and store its water elsewhere, but at a cost of $3 billion to $10 billion.
The PUC's staff began backpedaling almost immediately from Sklar's politically volatile idea of putting more of Yosemite underwater.
``In the context of a discussion about global warming and its impact on snowmelt and the need for more storage, commissioner Sklar said we ought to look at raising the height, but it wasn't something the commission discussed, and it took no action,'' said Tony Winnicker, a PUC spokesman in San Francisco.
``His comments were the opinion of one commissioner.''
Sklar, appointed to the PUC in 2004 by Mayor Gavin Newsom, did not return a Mercury News call Tuesday.
In 1913 Congress gave in to requests from San Francisco leaders to construct O'Shaughnessy Dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley. 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 through pipes to the Bay Area.
When first built, the concrete dam was 364 feet high. It was raised to 430 feet in the 1930s. O'Shaughnessy Dam could be raised an additional 80 feet without affecting its foundation, according to the original design by Michael O'Shaughnessy, San Francisco's chief engineer in 1912.
Currently, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is eight miles long. Enlarging it would be a massive political undertaking. It would require approval from Congress, and because the Tuolumne River, which is dammed in the valley, has national wild and scenic status, that also would have to be overturned by Congress.
Tuesday's meeting was convened by Sklar, who recently attended an international conference on climate change in New York. Sklar has a background in construction, having worked as an executive from 1983 to 1996 at O'Brien Kreitzberg and Associates, a major construction management company that builds airports, light-rail lines and other projects. When Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was mayor of San Francisco, Sklar ran the city's water, power and sewer agency.
Threat from warming
Although expanding Hetch Hetchy is considered a long shot, state water engineers have issued studies in recent months concluding that global warming is a significant threat to California's water supply.
One report released by the California Environmental Protection Agency last week cited scientific studies showing that the Sierra snowpack could be reduced 70 percent to 90 percent by 2100 under some scenarios, a conclusion that has some water officials advocating more reservoirs to store the faster-melting snow.
No state study has considered enlarging Hetch Hetchy. Many environmentalists want more water conservation and groundwater storage instead of new reservoirs.
``Whether we raise reservoirs, or go to desalination or cut back on landscape use, that will be the discussion that we'll be having,'' said Katherine Kelley, chief of the Bay Delta office of the state Department of Water Resources. ``No specific strategy has been selected to respond to global warming yet.''
One thing was for sure: Environmentalist opposition to Sklar's idea.
``It seems like a very costly and environmentally destructive idea,'' said Heather Dempsey, Bay Area Program director for Tuolumne River Trust, an environmental group in San Francisco.
Contact Paul Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 920-5045.