The long quest of some environmentalists to drain the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and restore the underlying valley could begin this November at San Francisco ballot boxes.
Opponents of San Francisco’s controversial water source say they will file paperwork next week with the City Attorney’s Office to clear the path for a signature-gathering effort to put a measure before voters later this year.
It would ask San Francisco residents to approve a planning process to eventually remove the O’Shaughnessy Dam and restore Yosemite National Park’s Hetch Hetchy Valley to its natural state. If that measure were approved, a second 2016 ballot measure would ask residents to vote on eliminating the dam once and for all.
“The last time San Franciscans had a say on the Hetch Hetchy reservoir was 1908,” said Mike Mashall, executive director of the conservation group Restore Hetch Hetchy. “We think once every 100 years is a reasonable enough time to re-evaluate our situation.”
To qualify for the November ballot, the measure must receive 9,500 signatures from San Francisco residents, but Marshall said the group plans on collecting at least 15,000 by June.
If approved, the Water Sustainability and Environmental Restoration Act would require city officials to commission feasibility, cost and planning studies of draining the reservoir. It also would address new ways for The City to take advantage of sustainable local sources such as recycled rainwater and groundwater. Such studies would identify federal and state hurdles that need to be cleared before voters could opt to remove the dam.
Hetch Hetchy reservoir, which provides San Francisco with much of its drinking water, has long been the subject of scorn from environmentalists. Before it was flooded in 1923 over the opposition of naturalist John Muir and others, the awe-inspiring valley contained a diverse network of plants and animals.
Restore Hetch Hetchy and its allies believe draining the reservoir could restore that biodiversity to the region within as little as five years.
Critics say draining the reservoir is untenable and would be much too costly.
In an opinion piece written for the Sacramento Bee last month, longtime critic of draining the valley U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said, “There is simply no feasible way to replace the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, return the valley to its original condition and still provide water to the Bay Area.”
However, Marshall said San Francisco could still adequately supply its water needs by getting water from the lower reaches of the Tuolomne River, which is the reservoir’s water source. The City also could do a much better job of tapping into renewable sources such as groundwater and
rainwater, he said.
After years as a pet project of environmentalists, restoration of the valley has recently received the strong backing of Republican Rep. Dan Lungren, California’s former attorney general. Lungren, who represents Gold River in the Sierra foothills and met his wife at Yosemite, said it’s been a longtime goal to see the national park expanded by the draining of the reservoir.
“The problem in the past is that the public has never been informed about the details of draining the reservoir,” Lungren said. “I’ve always thought we should at least look at the possibility. And I think this
ballot measure will show that it can be done.”
1923: Year Hetch Hetchy Reservoir was completed
220 million: Gallons of water provided each day from reservoir
2.5 million: Bay Area residents who receive drinking water from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
$3 billion to $10 billion: Cost of draining reservoir and restoring valley, per 2006 study