Restore Hetch Hetchy operates out of a shabby fifth-floor office in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood, across Mission Street from abandoned storefronts and a rundown SRO hotel. The small nonprofit's staff is forced to drink bottled water, because the aging buildings rusting pipes make tap water unpalatable.
But it's not the plumbing that puts a bad taste in the mouth of Executive Director Mike Marshall. What riles the San Francisco resident is the origin of the water that he and his neighbors use to irrigate their gardens and flush their toilets.
San Francisco, he believes, should not be importing water from Yosemite National Park to accomplish these mundane tasks, and it surely should not store that water behind a 312-foot dam in the heart of the park.
"We're green in many ways; we lead the country in many ways," he said. "But when it comes to water, we're just dead last."
Restore Hetch Hetchy, which spun off from the Sierra Club as a single-issue nonprofit a decade ago, hopes to ask voters this year to decide how they feel about The City's largest reservoir. The group must gather 9,702 signatures by July 9 to put an initiative on November's ballot that would require city officials to plan for draining Hetch Hetchy.
The initiative, the Water Sustainability and Environmental Restoration Planning Act of 2012, would call for The City to explore the feasibility of draining the reservoir and look into other sources of tap water, including groundwater and recycled wastewater. The cost would be capped at $8 million, and the initiative recognizes The City's right to continue drawing water from the Tuolumne River, which was dammed in the 1920s to form the reservoir.
If the ballot measure were to pass, The City would be required to finish planning by 2015, in time to place an initiative on the 2016 ballot that would actually require Hetch Hetchy to be drained.
The very idea of draining Hetch Hetchy has been roundly condemned by local politicians and business leaders. Mayor Ed Lee called the proposal "insane," and the entire Board of Supervisors, along with San Franciscos representatives in Washington and Sacramento, have come out against the initiative.
"The idea, just as an idea, hanging out there, sounds good, until you realize what a disaster it would be," said Jim Wunderman, president of the Bay Area Council, a coalition of businesses that is leading the opposition to the measure. "We think if the idea were to take hold, it would be an economic disaster for the Bay Area."
Business needs stability, Wunderman said, and that includes a reliable water system.
While public agencies can't advocate for or against ballot initiatives, it's fair to say that most employees at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which has maintained the Hetch Hetchy system for the better part of a century, will be voting against the measure.
In a recent interview at the commission's Civic Center headquarters, its chief, Ed Harrington, considered and dismissed one by one the alternatives to storing water in Hetch Hetchy.
The City owns two other reservoirs in the Sierra, which Restore Hetch Hetchy has suggested could be used more efficiently. But Harrington said those have smaller watersheds and the dams could not be raised much higher. The commission banks some water in the Don Pedro Reservoir, downstream from Hetch Hetchy, but the dam is owned by the Turlock and
Modesto irrigation districts, and they have said they will not raise it to accommodate more of San Franciscos water. There's no obvious place for a new dam, Harrington said, and San Francisco is prohibited from taking water directly from the Tuolumne River except on days when spring snowmelt leads to above-average flow.
The commission is developing alternative water sources — including groundwater, recycled water and desalination of brackish water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta — but those efforts will only mean a few million gallons a day.
"Those things are possible," Harrington said. "They don't make up for 85 percent of the water supply."
Marshall dismissed Harrington's concerns, arguing that the commission had not properly studied the proposal.
"All were trying to do is get the voters to say, Hey, we want to see if we can do better," he said. "If people pass it ... it requires The City not to guess about it but to actually look into it."
San Francisco is not the only big city in California with a dark history when it comes to water. Los Angeles, once a combatant in the early-20th-century "water wars," brought Mono Lake to the brink of environmental disaster before court decisions and orders by the State Water Resources Control Board forced the city to reduce the amount of water it was taking from the eastern Sierra Nevada.
"Mono Lake was a ticking clock," said Geoff McQuilkin, director of the Mono Lake Committee, which led the charge to save the shallow, briny lake southeast of Yosemite. "We were perched on the edge of ecological collapse."
Like draining Hetch Hetchy, McQuilkin said, restoring Mono Lake was considered a crazy idea when the committee first began its campaign in 1978.
"A lot of people said, 'Why are you getting involved in this?'" he recalled. "It's how it is; it's how it's always been."
Education gradually turned public opinion, McQuilkin said, and after lengthy litigation Los Angeles was required to reduce the amount of water it took from streams that had once fed Mono Lake. The state also imposed restrictions on the city's access to the nearby Owens Valley, which has become dry and dusty in the decades since Los Angeles began to divert water.
"Basically, we've lost half the water we used to draw from the Eastern Sierras," said Jim Yannotta, recently appointed manager of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
To make up the difference, Los Angeles began to buy more water from state and regional water authorities. But it also turned to local supplies, developing groundwater, creating a recycling program and encouraging Angelenos to conserve water in their homes. Although giving up Sierra water is something the city once abhorred, there is an upside to being forced to diversify, Yannotta said.
"There's always a chance, due to earthquakes or whatever, that the aqueducts could be severed," he said. "What's good about local water supply is, its something you'll always be able to control."