In 1987, more than half a century after San Francisco built the O’Shaughnessy Dam, the debate over the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir was briefly rekindled.
Donald Hodel, President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the Interior Department, may have seemed an unlikely environmentalist, but San Francisco leaders saw no joke in his proposal that the reservoir be drained.
“Mayor Feinstein took it very seriously,” recalled Jim Wunderman, then a member of Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s staff. “I think that was the first time people were aware of how important this resource was to San Francisco and to the Bay Area.”
Calling Hetch Hetchy San Francisco’s “birthright” and the idea of draining it “potentially disastrous,” Feinstein mounted a full-scale public relations campaign. Although the federal government studied Hodel’s proposal, Feinstein’s opposition quashed the concept.
Today, as environmentalists work to put an initiative on November’s ballot that would require San Francisco to take steps toward draining Hetch Hetchy, The City’s politicians are no less vocal. Mayor Ed Lee has called the idea “insane,” and the Bay Area Council, a business-backed advocacy group that Wunderman now leads, rounded up nearly every officeholder in The City to pledge opposition to the idea.
“We intend to mount a vigorous campaign,” Wunderman promised.
Meanwhile, the national environmental lobby has not thrown its weight behind the initiative.
The Environmental Defense Fund, historically a staunch supporter of draining the reservoir, is not providing Restore Hetch Hetchy with financial support. Spokeswoman Jennifer Witherspoon said that while Restore Hetch Hetchy was "doing fabulous work," her organization was looking at a bigger picture.
"As special a place as it is, it's just one place," she said.
A Sierra Club spokeswoman said she had no comment about Restore Hetch Hetchy's initiative, despite the two organizations' historically close affiliation and articles on the group's website that promote the concept of draining the reservoir.
The folks at Restore Hetch Hetchy, the group gathering signatures for the initiative, say they are seeking the Sierra Cluyb's endorsement. They also don't really mind opposition from the Bay Area Council, which they like to point out is funded by corporations such as Clorox, Citigroup and Bain & Company.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” said Mike Marshall, Restore Hetch Hetchy’s executive director, reciting an aphorism that is often attributed to Mahatma Ghandi. “We’ve moved from the mocking to the fighting stage, which is good, because then it gets us to the winning stage.”
Restore Hetch Hetchy’s initiative may have a better chance at the ballot box than it does among public officials. In a survey the group commissioned, 67 percent of voters supported requiring San Francisco to create “a more sustainable water system.” Eighty percent said they would support capturing more rainfall, and 77 percent said they would require The City to recycle a quarter of its water by 2025.
However, when it comes to actually draining the reservoir, only 46 percent of voters surveyed supported the idea, while 48 percent opposed it.
Marshall emphasized that the proposed ballot measure would not require The City to give up the reservoir immediately, but rather to study the feasibility of such an action.
“All we’re trying to do is get the voters to say, ‘Hey, we want to see if we can do better,’” Marshall said. “If people pass it, there will be no change to the water system.”
Restore Hetch Hetchy has until July 9 to gather the required 9,702 signatures that would put the measure on the ballot. It has secured the services of a professional signature-gathering firm, and it is funding the effort with $105,000 in donations, including $40,000 from Walmart heir Samuel Rawlings Walton.
Support from the conservative Walton is a sign that, as in the 1980s, feelings about Hetch Hetchy do not fall along party lines. That makes it is easy for San Francisco partisans to dismiss support for draining Hetch Hetchy as politically motivated.
“I think most people thought it was kind of weird for someone like Don Hodel, who had never been an environmentalist, to start with San Francisco,” Wunderman said. “I think it’s very similar to Dan Lundgren coming out with this now.”
Wunderman was referring to the Sacramento County Republican, one of the most conservative members of Congress, who asked the Department of the Interior in December to investigate whether San Francisco is overexploiting Hetch Hetchy. The department declined to look into the matter.
Restore Hetch Hetchy’s biggest obstacle may be Dianne Feinstein, who since winning her Senate seat in 1992 has continued to stifle any effort to take away San Francisco’s reservoir, including in 2007, when she had $7 million for a Hetch Hetchy study removed from the Department of the Interior’s budget.
Feinstein also seems to cast a shadow over the national environmental lobby. A Sierra Club spokeswoman said she had no comment about Restore Hetch Hetchy’s initiative, despite the two organizations’ previous close affiliation.
The Environmental Defense Fund, until recently a staunch supporter of draining the reservoir, is not providing Restore Hetch Hetchy with financial support. Spokeswoman Jennifer Witherspoon said that while Restore Hetch Hetchy was “doing fabulous work,” her organization was looking at a bigger picture.
“As special a place as it is, it’s just one place,” she said.
If Feinstein has her way, Hetch Hetchy will remain forever underwater. In an op-ed publish in the Sacramento Bee earlier this year, she confidently dismissed the idea that she fought so vigorously 25 years ago.
“Every so often an effort emerges to remove the O’Shaughnessy Dam and drain the reservoir,” she wrote. “Each time, the same conclusion is reached: There is simply no feasible way to replace the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, return the valley to its original condition and still provide water to the Bay Area.”
Who is behind the initiative?
The Money behind the campaign to drain Hetch Hetchy
- $82,600 in donations by the third week of May
- 26 individual donors
- $40,000 largest donation, from Walmart chairman Samuel Robson Walton
- $26,000 second-largest donation, from retired Wall Street executives Janet McKinley and her husband George Miller
- $5,000 third-largest donation, from retired Silicon Valley executive Peter Van Kuran
Source: San Francisco Ethics Commission filings