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Are We Ready to Kiss Our Big Dams Goodbye?

San Francisco's major source of drinking water comes from Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy, but there's a growing campaign to have the reservoir drained and returned to the park.

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More Than a Pipe Dream?

Having never witnessed what inspired and enchanted John Muir about Hetch Hetchy Valley, it can be hard to know what we're missing with the valley submerged beneath hundreds of feet of water. Would it be worth the time and money spent trying to figure out a solution? Would it be worth losing relatively clean hydroelectric power and potentially using more energy to pump and filter water? And if San Franciscans decided it was indeed worth it -- then what?

"You can drain the valley and let nature take its course, like after Mount St. Helens," said Marshall. "Or there's the adaptive restoration strategy ... you draw down the reservoir over a period of time so you can control nonnative species. Within two-three years you'll start to see grasses and rushes grow. Our proposal is to work with the Native American tribes to build nurseries of native plants in advance so you can put in grown plants. In about 10-15 years you'd see forests reclaiming itself where that is appropriate. Within 25 years you probably wouldn't know that it had been flooded at one point. Though there will be a bathtub ring that will be there for conceivably 100 years."

And the restoration process itself could become a kind of living laboratory. "It will be extraordinary to watch -- it will be so comprehensive," said Marshall. "We've proposed they rebuild the Hetch Hetchy railroad in order to bring the dam out and supplies in for restoration but also to use it as a people-mover so people can come and see the restoration process, have cameras set up all over so classrooms can track the restoration process in their environmental science classes and really enthuse people for ecological restoration."

Come Election Day, San Franciscans will weigh in with their opinions, but it will only be the beginning of the story. Restore Hetch Hetchy is taking a long-term view. "November is not the be-all-to-end-all -- if we lose we don't go home," said Marshall. "If we win we don't sit down. November is just one step in large process of reforming the water system and getting Hetch Hetchy Valley restored."

Ultimately, what is happening in San Francisco is relevant in communities across the country. Global warming has spurred an examination of how our values match up with our energy infrastructure -- can we use more clean, renewable sources of power instead of polluting fossil fuels to stave off potentially catastrophic environmental changes. But these investigations will need to also include an examination of our water infrastructure -- can we meet our water needs without sacrificing our rivers, streams and aquifers -- can we build infrastructure that correlates with what we truly value. Are we ready to rethink the efficacy of flushing our toilets and watering our lawns with potable water; with how much water we use and where it comes from; with how and where we grow our food?

It may be that a restored valley is the best thing for San Francisco and the Bay Area -- it may be that ultimately it's not. But there is nothing wrong with stopping for a moment to question our place in the world and whether we can do things differently or better.  

Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet and editor of the new book Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource . You can follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.

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