Poll: Should Hetch Hetchy Reservoir Be Drained?

A November ballot measure in San Francisco will ask voters to decide whether the city should draw up a plan to open O’Shaughnessy Dam, eliminating a huge source of drinking water for the Peninsula.


The proposal: a November ballot measure that would ultimately, if passed, move us closer to the idea of draining the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park.

The reservoir is the main water source for about 2.5 million Bay Area residents in San Francisco, on the Peninsula, and scattered throughout other parts of our immediate region. Los Altos and Los Altos Hills receive Hetch Hetchy water. 

On the Peninsula, we see the end result of water that flows from Hetch Hetchy along Interstate 280 at the Crystal Springs Reservoir.

This week, a conservation group called Restore Hetch Hetchy submitted more than 16,000 signatures from registered San Francisco voters in support of a ballot measure that would require a study of how to drain Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and replace the water lost with other means.

The damming of the Tuolumne River and the filling of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, described as on par with the magnificence of the Yosemite Valley, reportedly broke naturalist John Muir's heart. Restore Hetch Hetchy quotes Muir, one of the leading voices campaigning against the damming, as saying the Hetch Hetchy Valley is “one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples.”

The battle over Hetch Hetchy Valley goes back more than 100 years. The debate began in 1908. In 1913, the city of San Francisco won congressional approval to build O’Shaughnessy Dam. By 1923, the wilderness valley was buried under some 300 feet of water, and presumably lost forever.

Draining Hetch Hetchy isn't a new idea, either. In 1987, Reagan Administration Interior Secretary James Hodel intriguingly created a stir on a visit to San Francisco when he suggested draining Hetch Hetchy. Hodel and the Sierra Club had been at opposite sides of many conservation issues and that one took them by surprise. Then-mayor Dianne Feinstein opposed it immediately, just as she does now, as a U.S. senator.

A 2006 California Department of Water report indicated the valley could be drained, but the cost would be extraordinary: somewhere between $3 billion and $10 billion.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is in the middle of of the 70-year-old water delivery system, the first since it was built. San Francisco voters passed the bond measure in 2002. It has been passing on shared costs to customers, and the Purissima Hills Water District in Los Altos Hills, like other communities up and down the Peninsula, have been seeing hefty rate hikes.

If the ballot measure passes, what's not clear is how 2.5 million gallons of water–especially in dry, drought years–would be replaced.

Hetch Hetchy also produces about 300 megawatts of carbon-free hydroelectric power for the Bay Area.

Several area politicians, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, are critical of the the ballot measure, saying the region can't afford to drain the reservoir.

Restore Hetch Hetchy counters by stating "Modern engineering advances afford us the opportunity to remove the reservoir and create one of the most ambitious and exciting environmental restoration projects in human history. As a living laboratory, Hetch Hetchy will advance the science of restoration by providing biologists, ecologists and botanists from all over the world with the chance to apply cutting-edge science to re-establishing lost habitats."

What do you think? Should the Hetch Hetchy Valley be restored to its original state, and add to the beauty of Yosemite? Or is this a bad idea in this day of few dollars and large water needs?

Tell us in your comments, then vote in the poll below.


Steve Hedlund July 14, 2012 at 04:00 PM
insane to drain
James Thurber July 15, 2012 at 09:43 PM
If we really did drain Hetch Hetchy we would find a silt filled valley, no vegetation and incredibly discolored rocks. To return to any semblance of what it was before the dam was built would take between 500 and 700 years - at a minimum. Dams might not be a good idea but once they're in place removal is, at best, a potentially foolish decision.
W Nobuyuki July 15, 2012 at 11:47 PM
Hetch Hetchy can and should be drained. This organization has assisted in the removal of over 150 dams across the country. http://www.americanrivers.org/our-work/restoring-rivers/dams/ Here's information about one such project, 10 years after the dam was removed. http://www.americanrivers.org/our-work/restoring-rivers/dams/projects/edwards-anniversary.html
Kris Cadagan July 17, 2012 at 05:17 PM
Before casting a vote or expressing a strong opinion, please read the various detailed reports on Hetch Hetchy restoration. They are collected at hetchhetchy.org


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