With close to 16,000 signatures to get approval on the ballot for this November's election, Mike Marshall, Executive Director of the Restore Hetch Hetchy Campaign is confident the proposal brought before the voters of San Francisco will win.
He took some time to speak to this reporter on assignment for the Peninsula Progress about why he believes the effort to restore Hetch Hetchy is in everyone's best interest.
"All we are asking is that the people of San Francisco revisit the 100-year-old decision that has wreaked havoc on Yosemite and simply try to plan to do better" he said.
Interestingly, San Mateo County voters are not eligible to vote on this ballot measure, since San Francisco owns and operates the system that provides San Mateo with its water. In 1913 through the Raker Act, the U.S. Congress granted the City of San Francisco the storage rights to the Hetch Hetchy Valley, and hence from that time, San Francisco has had exclusive "ownership" over the use and management of that water source.
This is why it will only be for San Francisco voters to decide whether or not a plan should be drafted to find an alternative way for water to reach Bay Area customers. Once the plan/draft is completed, Marshall explained, that "it would have to be brought before the voters again for approval."
If it got that far, the question the Peninsula Progress would like to know is, how would San Mateo County or any other water customers, have recourse in this? Many more outside of the City of San Francisco are very dependent upon Hetch Hetchy for water. Among those so dependent upon Hetch Hetchy water are not just residents but businesses, schools, and so on.
The plan/proposal to identify other ways to deliver and store water would cost about $8 million and would be funded by the ratepayers of San Francisco. The plan would be in two phases, according to Marshall. He noted that the plan would include water management and recycling. If approved by voters the $8 million needed for the planning process could come from bonds approved by San Francisco voters for the Water System Improvement Plan in 2002.
Marshall explained that provisions are there in the improvement bond for a study and draft of a plan to improve water systems. According to Marshall and those who support the idea of restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley, the time has come to restore this natural wonder and national treasure. Here again, the idea based on this logic gets a bit complicated. Yes, the water rights belong to the City of San Francisco.
But if Yosemite belongs to the US Government, shouldn't this idea be brought back to Congress to evaluate further? And, if Yosemite is a national park, then why not push to have the idea on the ballot for a national election? Would Marshall and his organization support something as far reaching as that? Yet as Marshall points out, “the Raker Act allows San Francisco to store part of its water supply in Yosemite but does not require it.” “Hence, the US Congress does not need to give permission to remove the reservoir,” said Marshall. “If there were such a thing as a national referendum we would jump at giving the American people the chance to weigh in,” he said. As it is now, ”there is no such mechanism,” said Marshall.
Marshall noted that “some on the No on F campaign are engaging in fear-mongering rhetoric when making their argument.” But still, those opposed point out that storing, managing and delivering water for close to 3 million people is a complex task.
Marshall noted that there are already in place a system of other reservoirs that could manage the responsibility, if Hetch Hetchy were restored.
He and his supporters say that if SF voters pass this ballot initiative, It simply requires the city to develop a plan to reform the water system so the valley can be restored in 30 to 40 years, that is brought back to voters for approval in 2016. People will be able to witness a re-birth of an environment and a phenomenal restoration of a valley floor that has been buried for over a century by the O'Shaughnessy Dam and 117 billion gallons of water. With the help of high tech media tools and the web, "this would be a great educational opportunity for schools, universities and environmental researchers to witness," said Marshall. Watching the valley floor be restored over time would be a marvel, as Marshall envisions it.
Yet more than just water is in the balance. The dam and the reservoir also provide clean, efficient hydro-electric power and if dismantled and demolished that resource will be taken away also. But as Marshall points out, the system relies on three power stations located outside of Yosemite that are fed by three reservoirs. Marshall notes, that “removing the Hetch hetchy reservoir from the system would only result in s 20 percent loss of power produced.” “SF only uses 40 to 60 percent of the power it produces and sells the rest to the power-grid in the central valley.” Marshall still insists, “there would be no loss of power to San Francisco.”
Which leads into a very simply question, which would be addressed in the two-phased plan/draft, "where will the over 117 billion gallons of water go?"
To simply let all that water go down the drain would be a tremendous waste of a very precious commodity that a major agricultural area like California depends upon. The release of the water itself is one aspect. What about the demolition of the dam? What environmental impact would that have? Marshall wants people to know “the water comes from the Tuolumne River and not Hetch Hetchy Valley.” “Consolidating from nine reservoirs into eight while increasing our local water supplies would probably result in an increase of water supplies for SF,” said Marshall. “But let’s pass Prop F and actually find out what the impact will be,” Marshall noted.
And, would it create even more havoc upon an almost pristine water storage and delivery system? Some who support the restoration of Hetch Hetchy have suggested that the reservoir basin be drained and let be. Yet then the question arises, wouldn't a massive concrete basin left behind, defeat the purpose of full restoration? Supporters of the restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley want to allow it to be opened up to the public for hiking and nature-lovers. The reservoir and dam currently is open to visitors and the area has plenty of trails and paths for nature enthusiasts to enjoy. Still Marshall insists that full restoration would allow for even greater access.
That idea of course is only a thought, one that would be among many if the discussion of fully restoring Hetch Hetchy were to formally commence with the blessings of the voters.
The over all price tag if such a project were approved and work began, would be $3 billion to perhaps $10 billion dollars. Marshall says the cost would be closer to $3 billion. Yet those opposed to the idea see the price estimated at 10 billion or even higher. Marshall says that those higher estimates are extreme and toted in an effort to discredit the idea.
Marshall insists that just to have this opportunity to debate the option of finding alternative sources to store and direct water is important. "It is important to see if San Francisco can do better," he said. And, with the latest technology and approaches to conservation and recycling he believes this can be done. "With this debate (if passed by the voters), we are having a values debate," he said.
This reporter contacted others in the water-management community from the SF PUC to water recycling divisions in Southern California. While some were eager to talk about the importance of water efficiency and cost-effective management; which includes recycling, few wanted to say much about the Restore Hetch Hetchy Campaign. Some see it as too controversial to go on record and prefer to refrain from making comment. The Tuolumne River Trust is neutral on the subject, even though Marshall claims the Tuolumne River would benefit from the plan to restore Hetch Hetchy.
Even in non-profit circles of which Marshall and the Restore Hetch Hetchy Campaign have gained a foothold, there are those who oppose this ambitious and idealistic proposal. The San Francisco Business Times reported in Sept. that the long-established San Francisco Foundation, a community foundation that has supported many causes and charities in its 60-plus years, opposes Prop F. The SF Foundation "doled out $100,000 to defeat a measure that could potentially overhaul San Francisco's water supply." The article also mentioned other organizations in opposition; among them the SF Democratic Party and the San Francisco Hotel Council.
SF Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius noted that Marshall's non-profit endeavor is funded by private donations, through people like Sam Walton of Wal-Mart retailers. The SF Foundation sees the proposal as very short-sighted and thinks it's one that would have a disproportionate negative impact on low-income people to get access to something as simple as clean water.
"Restoring Hetch Hetchy is not our only concern, said Marshall. He has been serving as executive director for four years, taking over from the organization's founder Ron Good. There is the Yosemite Restoration effort in which Marshall noted over $225,000 has been raised so far. He knows the powers he and his staff are up against. "Our opponents have raised three times the amount to defeat us," he said. Marshall noted that among those opposed are Clorox, Chevron and PG&E.
Still he is undaunted in the effort. "Nothing of great value is easy," he said. "Bringing Hetch Hetchy Valley back to life is important to us and all we are asking is to allow San Francisco voters to have the opportunity to debate the possibility," he said.
"The water system that was designed and built over 100 years ago is like an old Ford Motel T (one of the first automobiles on the road). Now we are asking to look towards the future of water systems with a Prius hybrid, something that is more in tune with the times." Going from a Model T to a Prius, so to speak, that is what Marshall and those in favor of Prop F are asking the voters to decide upon.
The Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA) represents the 24 cities and water districts of which San Mateo County is a part.
When this reporter contacted Art Jensen, the General Manager of BAWSCA he referred to a formal statement he made back in 2005 and is now posted on the BAWSCA web site. “BAWSCA and other organizations, who represent the water interests of 1.7 million residents, large and small businesses, schools, hospitals, senior centers, and other community organizations, see a plan that poses huge risks to safety, health and economic well being of the people and enormous costs for taxpayers.”
BAWSCA's position is that elected policy makers must address five major requirements with facts before any responsible decision can be made.
BAWSCA will oppose any proposal to drain Hetch Hetchy Reservoir unless these requirements are met and the Bay Area people are protected, the economy is supported, and the communities are satisfied.
The requirements are:
1. No delay in rebuilding the earthquake-vulnerable Hetch Hetchy system caused by a
program to drain the reservoir or destroy the dam.
2. No change in the quality of water delivered to San Francisco’s customers.
3. No increase in the cost of water for San Francisco’s customers. Any increased capital, operating, maintenance and administrative costs resulting from draining or destroying the dam should not be borne by the existing or future water customers of the system through their water bills.
4. No change in physical facilities or institutional arrangements should reduce water supplies or expose existing and future water customers to more frequent or severe water shortages.
5. No modifications to the existing water system or its operation until all replacement facilities are funded, built and operational, and all institutional arrangements are in place, and fully funded.
To learn the basic outline of Prop F visit the City and County Department of Elections web site.