In San Francisco, concern for the environment is a dearly held civic virtue. The Sierra Club was founded here 120 years ago; San Francisco’s mayor issued the first Earth Day proclamation in 1970; and, more recently, San Franciscans have embraced everything from organic food and compostable plastics to hybrid cars and bike lanes. But the green city has a dark secret.
For the better part of a century, San Francisco has stored its tap water 180 miles away, in the heart of Yosemite National Park. The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which holds 117 billion gallons of water behind a 312-foot dam, drowned a glacial valley that early conservationist John Muir described as “one of Nature's rarest and most precious mountain mansions.” The reservoir has been a sore spot with environmentalists for decades.
On Election Day, the city will vote on whether to take the first step toward draining Hetch Hetchy and restoring the valley. A controversial ballot initiative introduced by a single-issue spin-off of the Sierra Club, called Restore Hetch Hetchy, would force the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to spend $8 million—less than 1 percent of the agency’s annual budget—to study alternatives to the city’s current water system. The ultimate goal is a second ballot initiative, in 2016, that would let voters decide whether to drain the reservoir. In a state as arid as California, giving up water storage is a perilous proposition, but polling earlier this year showed the measure has an even chance among San Francisco voters.
City leaders are a different story.
Local officials are usually open to ambitious, well-intentioned proposals. This is the city, after all, that is fighting childhood obesity by banning Happy Meal toys. San Francisco forbids plastic bags at retail stores; it has tried to place cancer warnings on cellphones; and it has had its own local version of universal health care since 2007. Public nudity is considered a form of free expression.
But considering an alternative to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir seems to be too outrageous for San Francisco. City Hall, local representatives, business groups, and newspapers have lined up against the proposal, calling it “stupid” and a costly boondoggle. They warn that draining Hetch Hetchy could destroy the Bay Area as we know it.
“As insane as this is, it is, in fact, insane,” sputtered the usually mild-mannered Mayor Ed Lee when the initiative was announced.
But the idea is not crazy. And refusing to discuss it shows a stubborn lack of foresight.
Muir and other early conservationists considered the Hetch Hetchy Valley the “exact counterpart” of the majestic Yosemite Valley, which is the site of El Capitan and Half Dome. But the Hetch Hetchy Valley’s high granite walls made it an attractive spot for a reservoir. San Francisco lobbied Congress for permission to dam the valley for years and finally succeeded in 1913—in part by capitalizing on sympathy for victims of the 1906 earthquake. Along with rights to the water, the city won a perpetual lease on the land. The decision was controversial then—200 newspapers around the country published screeds against it—but the O’Shaughnessy Dam went up across the Tuolumne River anyway, and the first water was delivered in 1934. Today, Hetch Hetchy is the largest of San Francisco’s eight reservoirs, storing water for the city and other municipalities across the Bay Area.
The gravity-powered system that carries Tuolomne River water from Hetch Hetchy to San Francisco, across two-thirds the width of the state, is a marvel of engineering. But it’s also an artifact of the early 20th century, an era when taming nature was a national obsession and rapidly growing California municipalities fought over water resources. Los Angeles took its desperate hunt for water all the way to the Owens Valley, more than 200 miles away, famously using subterfuge to acquire water rights from hapless farmers. By setting its sights on Hetch Hetchy, San Francisco was able to remain above such sordid tactics. But over the years, the smug city has come to see the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir not just as a savvy acquisition but as a “birthright,” to quote former mayor Dianne Feinstein.