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Off Deadline: Is 'Restore Hetch Hetchy' a pipe dream or a living vision?

 
Wapama Falls, far left, flows into the 117-billion-gallon Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite, the source of 85 percent of Palo Alto's water supply. Photo by Veronica Weber.

A century ago the great conservationist John Muir fought his last great battle: a doomed effort to prevent San Francisco from damming the Hetch Hetchy Valley, roughly the northern third of Yosemite National Park.

Today, Muir's philosophical descendants are aggressively pushing to return the valley to its natural state by either removing the O'Shaughnessy Dam or at least draining the valley to restore the flora and fauna that once lived there.

The effort not unexpectedly faces a virtual flood of opposition by San Francisco water district and city/county officials and has been vehemently opposed by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. San Francisco officials have thus far turned a deaf ear to suggestions they at least study the idea, according to group officials.

Feinstein once called it "the worst idea since selling arms to the Ayatollah." But her office did not respond to an email request for a current position.

Some opponents scoff at the proposal as a pipe dream. But if it is a pipe dream, the pipes rival the size of the giant ones that bring water to much of the Bay Area, including Palo Alto and many other cities in the region.

A severe drought year may not be the most opportune time to float the concept. But for longtime Palo Altan Peter Van Kuran, a retired marketing and business manager, restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley is a cause well worth pursuing. He serves as treasurer for the Berkeley-based Restore Hetch Hetchy, under Executive Director Spreck Rosekrans — who has been almost as diligent as Muir himself in pushing the restoration idea. Rosekrans works from a modest office in Berkeley adorned with photos of Hetch Hetchy Valley as it once was.

The group was formed as the Hetch Hetchy Restoration Task Force in 2000 in the Merced living room of Marsh Pitman, a Sierra Club member. Rosekrans became executive director in 2011. He formerly was on the staff of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Those involved did "under the radar" research and outreach prior to going public, he said.

A major boost came when the Sacramento Bee did a major article outlining water-resource alternatives; the article won a Pulitzer Prize.

A large part of today's incentive for restoration is that when the dam and the Hetch Hetchy reservoir were authorized by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913, as the Raker Act, the Hetch Hetchy Valley was already part of Yosemite National Park. It was considered the "second Yosemite Valley" in its pristine grandeur and sweep of granite walls, waterfalls, plants and animals. It earlier had been the seasonal home of native Americans for an estimated 6,000 years.

But the 1906 earthquake and fire had created an intense awareness of the unreliability of existing water-supply systems, and San Francisco leaders urgently began lobbying for rights to Sierra Nevada mountains' water. The city's allies and supporters began a multi-year effort to gain rights to develop the Tuolumne River, which feeds Hetch Hetchy reservoir and other reservoirs and facilities that are part of today's water system — transporting the water through the massive aqueduct that feeds the water temples in Sunol and Woodside and the Crystal Springs Reservoir above Redwood City.

An excellent history of the struggle can be found on Wikipedia. And a full outline of the Restore Hetch Hetchy proposal, including comparative photos, is at hetchhetchy.org. The proposal is to create a low-intensity version of the Yosemite Valley, absent the commercialization and development that exists there today. What Muir called "the bathtub ring" on the granite walls, caused by the drowning of the dark lichen once there, would eventually fade as the lichen returns, perhaps with some human assistance, Rosekrans said.

Van Kuran said he moved to Palo Alto in 1968 to attend the Stanford Graduate School of Business and spent 37 years working for Silicon Valley companies in sales and marketing, most notably for Tandem Computers, now part of HP Inc.

He said he discovered Yosemite National Park through attending the High Sierra Summer Camp and has had a "lifelong love of Yosemite," with its hundreds of miles of trails through the valleys and Tuolumne Meadows region.

"I was always aware of the big reservoir, which is a huge violation of the national park system," he said.

Some years back Van Kuran came across a performance in Yosemite by actor Lee Stetson, who does a high-end recreation of John Muir that includes among various tales his efforts to preserve the integrity of the park against sheep — "four-footed locusts," he called them — and against San Francisco's plan to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Stetson is scheduled to perform at the group's annual dinner in March in Berkeley, Van Kuran noted.

Van Kuran said he sees strong support for restoring Hetch Hetchy in the Palo Alto region, even though nearly all its water comes from the Hetch Hetchy system.

"I think the sentiment is moving toward restoration," he said, as information gets out that there are other storage facilities in the system and that the region would still get the same high-quality Sierra granite water.

"It's still from the Tuolumne River, just stored in different places," he said. The reservoir behind O'Shaughnessy Dam "is actually quite small" compared with other reservoirs, with just over 360,000 acre-feet behind the 430-foot-high dam. Even so, it is the largest of the city's eight reservoirs in its system.

If the dam were to be left in place and the reservoir drained, it would be unsightly but could be a large "monument to an albatross," he said.

A 2012 vote in San Francisco on restoring the valley failed, with just 22 percent support. Even officials of communities served by Hetch Hetchy water were nervous about the outcome and the future of a dependable high-quality water supply.

Restoration advocates have now turned to the courts, contending that the approval of the Raker Act violated California's constitution and the fundamental intent of the national parks. Support has come from several sources and includes several former state officials, Rosekrans said.

John Muir would be proud.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jaythor@well.com.

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Comments

8 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Stanford
on Oct 13, 2017 at 9:20 am

James Watt proposed removing the dam and building tourist hotels in Hetch Hetchy back in the 1980s. This was apparently a hoax to piss of San Francisco residents and others who drank Hetch Hetchy water and there was never any serious study or planning behind his talk. Ever since then, no one with any authority to move the project forward has taken it seriously.


Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 13, 2017 at 10:43 am

There are many organizations who are focusing on the Tuolumne River, including the Tuolumne River Trust with representation by Peter Drekmeier, former mayor of Palo Alto. Include in that Tom Stienstra, San Francisco Outdoor writer - who produced a movie on the progression of water from the sierra's to the bay.
Much discussion and opinions on this topic. Also the Governor who wants to take your water and send it down to SOCAL in twin tunnels/tubes. So many ideas with varying degrees of special interest and political positioning for financial gain.
This conversation is not about John Muir as he lived in a different time and circumstance regarding the population and population centers. Also California has many park system lakes and recreation areas so we are not dependent on the draining of the reservoir for additional park system locations. I think this point of view has been overcome by the governor's zeal for the repositioning of water production. And have to agree that draining the reservoir would be an unsightly mess that would probably then be the focus for development. "Development" is now the topic is Squaw Valley where they want to produce a Disneyland of all year adventures to thrill the tourists. Smokey the Bear would not approve.


5 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 14, 2017 at 7:02 am

Since the writer is looking for a dam to take down we have one directly in our area on the SU campus at the head of the San Francisquito Creek - Searsville Lake. The dam protection is over 100 years old. The discussion on this situation has gone on forever but SU is now looking to expand and resolution on this situation needs to happen as part of that expansion. Note that a similar dam situation was on the Carmel River and they were able to divert the sludge to resolve that issue which was a threat to the city of Carmel downstream. Other cities are working these same issues which are only going to escalate if we are in a high rain cycle.


15 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 14, 2017 at 7:52 pm

Curmudgeon is a registered user.

It's a great idea, but where does the water for our rapidly expanding population come from then? I know that's a very gauche question, but I've yet to see a workable solution.

Keeping the Hetch-Hetchy Valley drowned is a necessary consequence of our reckless greedy rush to overpopulate the area. Consider that whenever you advocate for more housing.


8 people like this
Posted by Jonathan Brown
a resident of Ventura
on Oct 16, 2017 at 12:50 pm

Show me the water! We're already underbuilt on water storage capacity, so the only way this idea makes sense is if we can first address the water storage shortage.


4 people like this
Posted by Leave Hetch Hetchy as it is.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 16, 2017 at 3:59 pm

Leave Hetch Hetchy as it is. is a registered user.

I love Hetch Hetchy the way it is. I have hiked the peaceful trail that runs along the perimeter of the reservoir. It is breathtaking with reflections of the magnificent mountains, sky and trees. I also enjoy the fresh water we get from this reservoir.

There are so many more important things we need this money for. Restoring this beautiful reservoir park space to a state we haven't seen in a century is not a priority for me.

Hetch Hetchy is heavenly as it is.


2 people like this
Posted by Mayfield Child
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 16, 2017 at 8:52 pm


I have a friend who drove from Capitola to my home in Palo Alto just to wash her hair~ telling me we have THEE best water! Love it the way it is...."Don't fix it if it isn't broke"...


Like this comment
Posted by Observer
a resident of another community
on Oct 17, 2017 at 11:59 am

Couple of comments:
1) The aesthetics of hiking alongside a mountain reservoir may be better than those of hiking at the bottom of a narrow granite walled canyon (i.e. furnace) during spring/summer.
2) The costs to remove the reservoir, build alternative equivalent storage, build pumping plants and supply them with fossil energy, etc., and replace the existing hydro power with fossil power are very high (B$$). Putting this level of debt on customers so that a few folks can recreate is an environmental justice issue that no one talks about.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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