The ballots are out — and the gloves are off — in the fight over whether San Francisco should study draining and replacing its primary water reservoir in the Hetch Hetchy Valley of beloved Yosemite National Park.
In the latest iteration of a centurylong fight over the dammed river valley, restoration advocates are accusing The City of dedicating employee time and taxpayer money to defeat their effort, Proposition F, on the November ballot. The use of taxpayer funds and city resources to advocate or speak out against such measures is prohibited by law.
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has funded nine trips to Yosemite this year for what spokesman Tyrone Jue called “stakeholders.” Jue said each junket costs The City around $2,500 in food and transportation, but he was unable to provide figures for how much staff time is dedicated to organizing the trips.
Normally there are four or five annual retreats to the reservoir, Jue said, but there were more this year to provide a wider perspective on the SFPUC’s ongoing pipeline improvement project, which is actually centered in the East Bay and under San Francisco Bay.
City workers attempted to set up a retreat in August on SFPUC-owned land at Hetch Hetchy for the Bay Area Council business network, whose company affiliates and primary board of directors donated $35,000 to the group against Prop. F, called Save Hetch Hetchy.
Council employees and city organizers exchanged emails about the trip, although it never occurred.
“They’re definitely using ratepayer resources to try to impact the debate, and that is wrong,” complained Mike Marshall of Restore Hetch Hetchy, head of the Prop. F effort. “They may not have violated the letter of the law, but certainly the spirit of the law.”
Mayor Ed Lee and other city leaders certainly have made their position clear regarding Prop. F’s effort to fund an $8 million study of the reservoir’s potential removal, calling it “stupid” and “insane.”
Marshall and his fellow Prop. F supporters also are taking issue with a long-standing SFPUC ad campaign promoting the virtues of Hetch Hetchy — a message paid for by nearly $200,000 in grant money from the U.S. EPA.
While the terms of the grant call for a campaign to “promote its consumer complaint service call center,” the SFPUC said in early 2011 that it would focus its message on the 311 complaint line, the goodness of the water and the clean hydroelectric power generated by the O’Shaughnessy Dam. The results of that effort are Muni ads displaying statements such as “San Franciscans drink it: Hetch Hetchy tap water. It's delicious. Help us keep our water delicious. Dial 311 to report water quality issues.”
Jue noted that the ads were put out long in advance of the Prop. F campaign, and that Marshall and other measure backers attended one of the tours in 2009. A San Francisco Examiner reporter participated in a tour in 2010.
Jue said if the issue of draining Hetch Hetchy is brought up at tours, guides simply state what’s available in the ballot materials and nothing more.
PJ Johnston, a spokesman for Save Hetch Hetchy, called The City’s marketing effort business as usual and said Marshall’s complaints are frivolous.
“Every PUC general manager in my lifetime has promoted Hetch Hetchy water,” Johnston said, referring in part to The City’s past efforts to curb bottled water use.
This story was corrected on October 19.
An earlier version of this story misidentified the Muni ad that was paid for by an EPA grant.