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Hetch Hetchy Makes San Franciscans a Touch Tetchy

May 12, 2015

Wall Street Journal

“Monopolizing San Francisco capitalists,” Mr. Muir wrote in a 1908 Sierra Club Bulletin, are “trying with a lot of sinful ingenuity to get the Government’s permission to dam and destroy the Hetch Hetchy Valley for a reservoir, simply that comparatively private gain may be made out of universal public loss.”

In 1913, the Democratic Congress passed and President Woodrow Wilson signed the Raker Act, authorizing San Francisco to build dams, powerhouses and pipelines to shuttle water and hyower from Yosemite to the Bay Area. Contemplating the valley that would soon be a lake, Mr. Muir lamented: “The destruction of the charming groves and gardens, the finest in all California, goes to my heart.”

A century later, environmentalists have revived Mr. Muir’s crusade amid perhaps the most severe drought in over a millennium. Last month, a group of environmental activists organized under the sobriquet Restore Hetch Hetchy sued in state court to raze theO’Shaughnessy Dam and drain the reservoir, which now supplies water and power to 2.6 million Bay Area residents. If successful, the lawsuit would create a severe water shortage in the Bay Area, which has been among the areas least affected by the drought in the West. The lawsuit, a new front in a decades-long internecine battle between San Francisco grandees and environmentalists, is exposing some peculiar contradictions of liberal politics.

According to the lawsuit, the Hetch Hetchy project violates the California constitution’s prohibition of “waste or unreasonable use” of water resources, which must be put to “beneficial use thereof in the interest of the people and for the public welfare.”

The environmentalists maintain that it is “unreasonable” that the reservoir obstructs their scenic views of “aquatic birds, fish and other aquatic animals, and terrestrial species, including black bears, deer, and other species.” They also grouse that people “cannot fish in the river but must resort to a diminished fishing experience from the shoreline of the reservoir.” Nor can people swim, but it’s not as though there would be much swimming if the reservoir were removed and the natural flow of the Tuolumne River restored.

The environmentalists don’t protest that wildlife is being harmed. Rather, their gripe is that people are being deprived of recreational and aesthetic enjoyment. The group estimates Hetch Hetchy Valley’s so-called existence value—which captures “individuals’ strong desires to be able to visit a restored Hetch Hetchy Valley in the future, to realize their ecological ethics, their altruism toward others and the environment, and the desire to benefit future generations”—at between $44 billion and $113 billion based on their review of other dam removals.

Environmentalists have been petitioning national and local politicians to bulldoze the dam for decades. They got a major assist in 1987 when Ronald Reagan’s last secretary of interior, Donald Hodel, proposed draining the reservoir. However, San Francisco politicians revolted and scuttled the idea.

San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, now a U.S. senator, called Hetch Hetchy water her “birthright” and proclaimed that she would “‘do all in my power” to fight the teardown. “All this is for an expanded campground?” Ms. Feinstein mused. “It’s dumb, dumb, dumb.”

In November 2012, San Francisco environmentalists bypassed politicians and sought voter approval for a local ballot measure to prepare a plan to drain the reservoir and develop alternative water and power sources. The city’s ruling class, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Mayor Ed Lee, Sen. Feinstein and all 11 members of the board of supervisors, opposed the proposition, which they warned would jack up residents’ water and power costs.

Hetch Hetchy supplies the Bay Area with pristine water, which requires little treatment and energy for pumping, at low cost. Its hyower is also cheap and helps offset the city’s pricey renewables such as solar.

A 2006 study by the state Department of Water Resources estimated that demolishing the Hetch Hetchy project and replacing the Bay Area’s water and power supply would cost between $3 billion to $10 billion (in 2005 dollars). The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission calculated that the endeavor would raise the average utility customer’s rates by between $709 and $2,277 per year and that the loss of hyower would cost the city at least $41 million annually. Only 23% of city voters backed the 2012 measure.

Yet environmentalists hope that judges, who have assisted several of their coups, will be more receptive. Recall that in 2007 a federal court ordered restrictions on water pumping in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to protect the delta smelt.

The environmentalists have found an unlikely ally in farmers. Last year, the Fresno-based Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy and Reliability—whose executive director is the general counsel for the largest agricultural water districts in the U.S.—sued the National Park Service in federal court for violating the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act. According to the lawsuit, Hetch Hetchy illegally diverts freshwater from the Tuolumne River. San Francisco, they argue, is siphoning off water before it reaches the delta and thus diminishing the supply available to agriculture and wildlife.

San Francisco elites, the argument goes, are grabbing cheap water to the detriment of fish and poor farmers. If the city’s liberal politicians care as much about social inequality and the environment as they profess, why won’t they spread the water around?

Ms. Finley is an editorial writer for the Journal.

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