Drawbacks too plentiful to drain Hetch Hetchy 

An environmental group is trying to place a measure on the November ballot in San Francisco that would begin the process of draining the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. While the goal of restoring that scenic Yosemite valley to its pristine nature is admirable, its drawbacks outweigh its advantages for San Franciscans.

Hetch Hetchy supplies 220 million gallons of clean, unfiltered water from the Sierra Nevada snowmelt and precipitation each day to 2.5 million Bay Area residents, including San Franciscans. In a state that recently suffered several years of drought and is currently experiencing a dry winter, Hetch Hetchy stores up to 117 billion gallons of water.

The system also generates 1.6 billion kilowatt hours of clean, hydroelectric power annually for San Francisco. In another environmental bonus, the high elevation of the reservoir allows the water to move across the state using little more than gravity, ensuring that San Franciscans receive water and power from a greenhouse gas-free system.

Amazingly, it only costs San Francisco $30,000 per year to use Hetch-Hetchy as a reservoir, thanks to water rights going back to 1913. That’s an incredible bargain, something to be celebrated rather than thrown away. But it may have to be fought for because Republican Rep. Devin Nunes wants to increase it to $34 million per year, arguing that San Francisco’s cheap rent is an unfair federal subsidy.

Fortunately, The City has a powerful fighter in its corner, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has been arguing for years against draining Hetch Hetchy. “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,” she recently wrote in an opinion piece.

Perhaps the biggest drawback to draining Hetch Hetchy and restoring the valley is that it could cost as much as $10 billion, according to a state study in 2006. That money would have to come from the federal budget, which is more than $15 trillion in debt and adding more than a trillion dollars each year. Or it would have to come from California’s budget, which is facing a $13 billion shortfall. Or it would need to come from San Francisco’s budget that is looking at a $229 million deficit in the next fiscal year and a $364 million deficit in the year after.

But, assuming San Franciscans decide to go down this road (by the way, shouldn’t the 1.7 million other Bay Area residents receiving Hetch Hetchy water get a say?) and money is found, there is no guarantee that a drained Hetch Hetchy will look anything like the pristine valley championed by John Muir a century ago. It might instead become a mosquito-infested, weed-filled eyesore for years, perhaps decades.

Ironically, as visitors to Hetch Hetchy know, it’s actually a lovely setting as it is. If the man-made reservoir were actually a natural lake, it would be lauded as one of the wonders of Yosemite instead of something in need of destruction.

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