Ken Garcia: Restoring Hetch Hetchy to pristine state is a nice fantasy 

With scores of people succumbing to the record temperatures in the Central Valley this week, it seems appropriate to throw some water on an overheated idea that refuses to go away — no matter how many times it’s been shown to be a fiscal fantasy.

And that would be the fanciful notion of tearing down the O’Shaughnessy Dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley to restore it to its pristine natural state, regardless of cost, practicality or need.

The price of dismantling the dam to bring about this misty-eyed environmental crusade would be somewhere between $3 billion and $10 billion, according to a state water report released last week — a sliding scale so enormous that you have to wonder if water department engineers really have any grasp of the actual cost. But what that really means is that the actual bill would likely be that much higher based on the astounding cost overruns for any major capital project in California, where the Bay Bridge rebuild plan immediately comes to mind.

Don’t get me wrong — San Francisco officials really had no right to dam the valley nearly a century ago so it could commandeer some of the purest water in the world and divert it to its growing metropolis. But undoing a mistake on which 2.4 million Bay Area residents now depend for their daily lives falls into the realm of the unreasonable — which is how one could adequately describe some of the more vociferous environmental lobby members that have pushed the restoration plan each illogical step of the way.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which estimated the cost of tearing down the dam at about $10 billion more than a year ago, has good reason to continue to insist that the restoration idea doesn’t hold water — it is engaged in a $4.5 billion seismic retrofit of the aging water supply system. And while city officials have never been shy about throwing good money after bad, they generally do so with fewer zeroes attached.

Does it make sense to spend billions to fix and upgrade a system and then spend many more billions to dismantle it? Only if you happened to pick this week to take that long-awaited visit to Death Valley.

Officials at Environmental Defense, the organization that has spearheaded the campaign to tear down the dam, said they were encouraged by the report’s finding that it was technically feasible (that is, if a few hundred other questions are ultimately answered.) But to get to that point, state water experts would need to do further studies, estimated to cost somewhere between $7 million and $20 million.

Tom Graff, the highly respected California director of Environmental Defense, told me he was encouraged by the findings, even if the cost estimates clearly make it so politically unpalatable that it may never get beyond the conservation wish list.

"The state says it can be done and that’s a big deal because it moves the ball in the right direction,’’ he said. ‘‘The real question now is whether this continues to be studied. We think it would be hard for people to say that it doesn’t deserve further discussion.’’

Still, people have been discussing it for decades, and it’s no more close to becoming a reality today that it was three decades ago. Graff says he actually supports the fact that San Francisco and Peninsula residents are paying billions to retrofit Hetch Hetchy, since it wouldn’t be too smart to wait and see how the fragile system fares during the next major earthquake.

But before the state pays another $10 million or $20 million to study the feasibility of transforming one of California’s major water supply systems, maybe it would make sense for the many well-meaning environmental groups to hold a summit and try and come up with a top 10 dream list of favorite conservation projects.

Should we spend our monopoly money saving California’s disappearing wetlands? How about our levees in the fragile delta? Should we put more resources toward protecting our natural forests? For some people in Southern California, saving the Salton Sea would probably be a higher priority. If you put it to the test, I’m not sure Hetch Hetchy pencils out for most state officials. Certainly, the idea has gained no traction in Congress — where most of the key players like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., still think it’s a rusty pipe dream.

I’m all for being idealistic, but I could give you at least 2.4 million reasons why it’s a virtual certainty that the Hetch Hetchy Valley won’t be returned to its original 1923 untapped condition.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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