Are We Ready to Kiss Our Big Dams Goodbye?

In 1941, Woody Guthrie had one of the most unlikely muses. The soon-to-be folk legend wrote 26 songs in just one month espousing the glories of hydroelectric dams. He did pick up a government paycheck for $266.66 for his efforts, though. In "Grand Coulee Dam," Guthrie likened the structure to the "greatest thing yet built by human hands," and sang, "she ripped our boats to splinters but she gave us dreams/dream of the day the Coulee Dam would cross that wild and wasted stream."

Guthrie captured the sentiment of the time perfectly: If you weren't damming a river, then it was being wasted. The 1930s and '40s saw the creation of mammoth projects like Hoover and Bonneville and Coulee. Those weren't the first and surely won't be the last. The US has an estimated 80,000 dams. In the American West, dams turned desert into farmland, and supplied power and drinking water to cities that couldn't have existed without them. The people of Guthrie's time heralded these accomplishments.

Or most of the people, anyway. Guthrie was born in 1912. In that same year, famed naturalist John Muir was fighting a project that would dam the Tuolumne River as it flowed out of the Sierras and flood Hetch Hetchy Valley in California's Yosemite National Park. In a plea to save the valley, Muir eloquently told Congress that Hetch Hetchy was "one of Nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples."

But the O'Shaughnessy Dam was built and the valley was flooded in 1923. San Francisco gained a prized reservoir and hydroelectric capacity. Muir died in 1914 but the fight over Hetch Hetchy -- nearly 100 years later -- is still going.

This fall voters in San Francisco will be asked to take the first step in a process that could result in the draining of the reservoir, the removal of O'Shaughnessy Dam and the restoration of the valley. But not everyone is convinced it's a good thing -- especially the state's leading political powers.

Goodbye Big Dams?

The prescient John Muir knew something that took most of the world a century to figure out. Big dams aren't necessarily a win-win. "Progress," something that seemed like a given during the early 20th century, looks a little bit murkier now as the silt is piling up inside reservoirs, the fish are dying off in dammed streams, and wild places and creatures have been pushed to extinction.

It may be that our love affair with big infrastructure has cooled. Last September a crowd gathered near the mouth of the Elwha River in Washington's Olympic peninsula to witness an excavator tearing through some of the concrete structure of the Elwha Dam. The historic event kicked off a three-year process that will include the removal of two dams on the river in what has been dubbed the largest dam removal project in US history.

At the time, Juliet Eilperin wrote for the Washington Post, "The pace of removal has quickened, with 241 dams demolished between 2006 and 2010, more than a 40 percent increase over the previous five years." Organizations like American Rivers have been leading the charge. "Our expertise and advocacy have directly contributed to the removal of more than 150 dams across the country," the organization says.

But are San Franciscans ready to see O'Shaughnessy Dam next on the shopping block?

The Case for Restoring Hetch Hetchy

Mike Marshall believes San Francisco needs an overhaul of its water management strategy. He works as executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy, the organization behind the Yosemite Restoration Campaign, which filed paperwork this month to bring a ballot measure to the voters of San Francisco in November. The measure, the Water Sustainability and Environmental Restoration Planning Act of 2012, would not immediately seek the draining of Hetch Hetchy reservoir, but instead asks the city to come up with a long-term plan for improving local water supplies and reducing harm to the Tuolumne River and Yosemite National Park.

First, YRC has to get enough signatures to get the measure on the ballot -- something Marshall believes is achievable. Then, if San Francisco voters are in favor of the measure, the city would have four years to come up with a plan that would be presented to the voters in 2016.

Currently, San Franciscans enjoy pristine Tuolumne River water that comes unfiltered from the High Sierras and reaches the city via a gravity-fed system. The Hetch Hetchy reservoir is the largest of seven drinking water reservoirs (there are also two hydroelectric reservoirs) that quench the thirst (as well as the sanitation and irrigation needs) of 2.6 million people in the Bay Area, including the entire city of San Francisco as well as wholesale customers in nearyby Alameda County, Santa Clara County and San Mateo County. According to Alison Kastama of San Francisco's Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), which operates the system, 85 percent of the water originates from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir and the other 15 percent comes from two local watersheds.

Compared to other parts of California, San Francisco has it pretty good when it comes to a reliable and affordable source of drinking water. And in a state known for water wars and frequent shortages, why would San Francisco want to mess with a good thing?

Perhaps it's because, as Muir wrote, "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike." To Muir, flooding the valley was sacrilegious. He wrote, "Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man."

Hetch Hetchy valley, "was one of four glacially carved valleys," explains RHH's Marshall. "John Muir said it was an exact counterpart to Yosemite Valley. It was one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world because of the climate and altitude. It was truly, truly an extraordinary place and it's why Lincoln originally set aside Yosemite in the Yosemite Land Grant but it didn't include Hetch Hetchy or any of that side of the park. But then when they created the National Park in 1890 Muir fought to have it included because it was such an extraordinary place and needed to be protected. And Congress agreed."

But San Francisco city leaders saw the valley not as a temple, but as a cistern. For years they tried to make their case. The devastating earthquake of 1906 may have helped to swing public opinion. And Marshall believes, so too did Woodrow Wilson being elected president in 1912. "He hired as his Secretary of the Interior the City Attorney of San Francisco." After a long battle in Congress, the Senate voted in favor of the dam in December of 1913.

"The debate about Hetch Hetchy was about more than a valley," said Marshall. "It was about our national parks, and it went to the core of the transition of our values about unbridled development for the benefit of society and business to knowing we have these natural spaces that are incredibly sacred and don't we have a responsibility as a nation to pass them on and protect them. So here we are 100 years later and we're dealing with all kinds of consequences of that previous value system in terms of our impacts on the environment and our lack of willingness to revisit many of those decisions."

Marshall says his organization wants to see San Francisco update its water system by relying on more on local water supplies, including groundwater, water recycling and rainwater. "San Francisco utilizes just 2.5 million gallons of groundwater today, compared with 14.5 million in 1930 -- and does little to harness the 55 million acre-feet of rainwater it receives each year," the organization reports. Marshall believes that alternative water storage can be substituted for the Hetch Hetchy reservoir's 360,000 acre-feet (large for the system but tiny in comparison to the 28,945,000 acre-feet that could be held by Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam). Information from Restore Hetch Hetchy suggests using groundwater "banks," which are geologic areas that are able to store water underground; building a new reservoir or enlarging another existing one in the system; buying supplies on the "open market"; or using desalination.

"The best physical solution in dry years to get enough water is to have San Francisco and its customers invest in groundwater storage in the Central Valley," said Restore Hetch Hetchy's policy director Spreck Rosekrans. In wet years, he says, the city would move water to the water bank, and during dry years that banked water would be available as a trade -- agricultural communities nearby would have the water to pump for irrigation and in turn they would give up some of their rights to Tuolumne River water that San Francisco could use.

Is There the Will or the Way?

Since 1987, seven different reports have examined the feasibility of eliminating Hetch Hetchy reservoir and restoring the valley. The most recent and comprehensive, done by the California Department of Water Resources in 2006, examines all the previous studies and comes to the conclusion that there are still too many unknowns. The authors write:

This final report is a comprehensive analysis of Hetch Hetchy Valley restoration studies. But even as a comprehensive analysis, we find, first and foremost, that much study remains to be done because there are major gaps in vital information. For example, objectives for replacing the water supply for the Bay Area, dam removal methods and impacts, and considerations of the public use and benefit of a restored Valley remain largely undefined. Another critical, missing element is a formal public involvement process to engage agencies, Native American tribes, stakeholders and other interested parties in this issue...

The state concludes that the existing body of work--including its own--is insufficient to support sound public policy decision-making at this time; in fact, most of the work to date is not even at the "concept level." However, the state found no fatal flaws in the restoration concept that would preclude additional study.

The problem is, there isn't really an easy solution to coming up with the additional water needs that Hetch Hetchy currently fills. Don Pedro dam, the closest large reservoir, is actually jointly owned by the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts, although the SFPUC has a stake in the reservoir from having financed part of the construction of Don Pedro in 1971. The irrigation districts though, appear to have little interest in wading into discussions about removing O'Shaughnessy Dam. They released a statement saying, "It does not make sense to the districts that a water-short state that desires to reduce its carbon footprint would seriously entertain the idea of removing a 360,000 acre-foot storage reservoir," the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The two other "upcountry" reservoirs are Lake Eleanor and Cherry Lake, which are currently used for hydroelectric power and are not used for drinking water, says SFPUC's Kastama. "The next largest drinking water reservoir after Hetch Hetchy is Calaveras," said Kastama. "But it holds 32 billion gallons, against 117 billion gallons that Hetchy does." So an upgrade there to accommodate the extra capacity would be massive.

Without an easy way to increase storage in an existing facility the city would be faced with other potentially more costly and complicated options. The idea of water "banking" using underground storage has been done before in California, but not without complications -- the most notorious being the Kern Water Bank at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, which was built with public money but is now owned and controlled by rich agribusiness interests. Banking water in the Central Valley, where water resources are a source of continued strife between agricultural and environmental interests, could mean a tangle of politics, not to mention the fact that parts of the Central Valley's aquifers are undrinkable because of contamination from farming operations.

In addition to finding new water storage options, Marshall believes San Francisco could offset the loss of Hetch Hetchy by also developing more local water supplies -- increasing the amount of groundwater and recycled water that is used. Kastama says the city has a partnership with neighboring Daly City that supplies recycled wastewater for irrigation, a project that mainly serves golf courses, thus far. And plans are underway for two recycled water facilities in the city, but the first one will likely not be online until 2018 at the earliest.

Desalination, another potential option, can be extremely costly, energy-intensive and have adverse environmental impacts -- although there are discussions about desal in the Bay Area currently.

With a lot of imperfect options on the table, the PUC, it seems, has little interest in entertaining the idea of giving Hetch Hetchy back to the National Park Service. Hetch Hetchy reservoir, "is a gravity-fed system, we do not use electricity to pump water across the state," says Kastama. "It also saves energy because it doesn't need the pumping that would be required if it had to go to a filtration plant. We also generate hydroelectricity that powers municipal services in the city -- public schools, libraries, street lights -- come from the Hetchy system."

Marshall is hoping that his organization's ballot measure will force more concrete discussions about the feasibility of dam removal. And also about the all-important problem of cost. "Who's going to pay for all of it -- that's what the planning process has to identify," he said.

"Approving the ballot measure in 2012 would mean there would need to be a plan developed that would be brought back to the voters in 2016 with a clear idea about what the budget costs are and where the revenue streams are coming from so the voters have a much clearer idea than what exists."

Restore Hetch Hetchy is hoping to swing public opinion in their favor. As of yet, they haven't managed to swing the favor of leading political figures in California.

"Senator [Diane] Feinstein's longstanding opposition to this has cast a very dark shadow over any conversation about reforming the system," said Marshall. "And she's been an obstacle to reforming the San Francisco water system for 30 years. Our goal is to circumvent the people who are intimidated by her, which are her colleagues in the legislature at every level -- the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the California Legislature, and members of Congress.

"So we're going directly to the voters and should the voters, the constituents of all those people, say 'hey this is something we want to look at and consider,' then it creates political cover for those very people that frankly want to get into the game. I've had too many conversations off the record with people who support what we're doing but don't want to go up against Senator Feinstein. If we win in November that creates a new political dynamic. The goal is not to beat Senator Feinstein, the goal is to get her to sit at the table and figure this out with us because she is an incredibly powerful woman who has the resources and the wherewithal to strike the grand bargain with the federal government, the state government and the local government to make it all happen in everyone's interest."

Senator Diane Feinstein, who represents San Francisco told the Los Angeles Times in December, "Hetch Hetchy provides critical water supplies to 2.5 million people and thousands of businesses, and any effort to jeopardize that water supply is simply unacceptable." Feinstein's counterpart in the House, Barbara Boxer, hasn't been as publicly outspoken on the issue, but has been cool, at best, to the idea. And a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle reports that the city's mayor, Ed Lee, said the project is "not worth studying." He called it "a stupid idea."

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.  

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.