The fight for clean energy pits San Francisco against the river rafting industry

‘I can’t really put flashlights on the handles of paddles’

Standing at 6 feet, 3 inches and 190 pounds, Marty McDonnell, it could be said, was destined to be a river guide.

The Mill Valley native got his start in the whitewater rafting business in the 1970s for what he cites as a deep spiritual connection to nature and for the thrill of dodging boulders and ripping down rapids on the Tuolumne River watershed.

“To me, it is the magic of putting my paddle in and deflecting currents,” he said. “It’s like dancing with gravity.”

But after 5 decades of shepherding countless groups down some of the world’s most iconic and challenging runs, McDonnell never expected to find himself in a mounting battle against the changing climate, the solar industry and the City of San Francisco.

Although 2021 marked another dire year for the dwindling Sierra Nevada snowpack, it’s not California’s drought that worries McDonnell. Instead, it’s how hydropower is generated along the Tuolumne River and distributed downstream.

Thanks to the Raker Act, which permitted the construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam and the flooding of Hetch Hetchy Valley in 1913, San Francisco uses the Tuolumne watershed to source both its water and nearly 20% of its energy supply.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) puts our tap water to work through the use of gravity, funneling water from Sierra snowmelt into power through three hydroelectric powerhouses along the Tuolumne watershed.

Now, as solar power and other renewables have skyrocketed in the state, the demand for hydropower has dropped precipitously when the sun is up, disincentivizing the SFPUC to release water into the system during the day. It’s a reality that leaves businesses like McDonnell’s with scant water when they need it most.

“I can’t really put flashlights on the handles of paddles,” said McDonnell, adding that over the last two years, he’s had to take groups out at ungodly hours or camp out on the side of a river, waiting for water to be released from one of the many dams within SFPUC’s system.

Opposing solar and other forms of renewable energy puts McDonnell and a growing coalition of boaters, fishers and recreation providers who generally share a love of the natural world in a tricky spot.

“Green solar and wind power. I mean, like, holy moly, you know? I’ve been a proponent of green energy since I was in college,” said McDonnell. “I applaud renewable resources that are not polluting the planet. But it’s like, huh? What I really like is now threatening something that is a fundamental part of my person.”

Timed releases

The City has long partnered with governments, irrigation districts and businesses along the watershed. Since the 1980s, the SFPUC has designated its releases to coincide with daytime boating needs – holding back springtime runoff and metering it out over the summer months to provide reliable and consistent flows for boaters, fishers and recreational use — a service SFPUC said would continue this year despite drought conditions and the fluxes in the renewable energy market.

Still, it’s a complicated dynamic; the SFPUC profits off its ability to sell its hydroelectric power. But as a glut of other renewable energy beams into the grid during the day, the energy generated by water can be rendered superfluous — and can actually cost San Francisco money to produce, a phenomenon called negative pricing.

To offset this, the SFPUC has started to release flows at night or in the early morning hours when sun and wind power are not flooding the grid.

Making matters worse, climate change is also taking its toll on the system. “In most years, the reservoirs and undammed tributaries spill or release water into the river(s). And so in normal years, there’s water in the spring,” said Jerry Meral, one of the first to raft the Tuolumne watershed in the 1960s. “Frankly, due to climate change, May is not as reliable as it used to be … plus there’s less snow. It’s more rain, less snow. So that’s a problem.”

The confluence of these factors means that during the spring when snowmelt usually is streaming into rivers, that water is being held back, resulting in dwindling and unreliable flows and causing headaches for recreational businesses already heavily dependent on the seasons.

In the last two years, McDonnell’s boating season has been reduced from seven months to three.

“I want to be able to be a guide to people down the river in the springtime when the side streams are gushing, and the wildflowers are blowing up — it’s the best time of the year to go,” he said.

Seeking solutions

Though some of these forces, like negative pricing and the shifting snowpack, are beyond the SFPUC’s control, Meral is quick to point out the tensions embedded in The City’s long-held relationship with the Tuolumne.

“San Francisco has been good at exploiting the Tuolumne watershed in a huge way for water and power for over 100 years,” he said. “Tuolumne County doesn’t get much out of that, to put it very mildly. Basically, their water and power are exported, and they get nothing.”

Meral said the one benefit Tuolumne County does get is recreation. “It’s a big deal up there,” he said.

Though both the availability of renewable energy and the impacts of climate change are poised to increase in the coming years, Meral and McDonnell say there are easy solutions to this growing problem.

“The bottom line is there needs to be an exception for San Francisco to be able to generate power from 7 to 11 in the morning like they did five, 10 years ago on a regular basis — April through the first week of September,” McDonnell said.

He’d also like to see more flexibility in how The City operates its power system. “San Francisco should be able to sell their power,” McDonnell said, noting The City is limited by the Raker Act to sell the power to the airport, San Francisco’s municipalities and the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts. “But I think if they could have more flexibility in how they sell their power, it would be a win-win for everybody.”

Others want The City to leverage its reputation as a hub of innovation and environmental stewardship to develop battery storage at the powerhouses so energy could be stored and meted out when demand is more favorable.

“That would be a wonderful solution,” said Meral. “Even though batteries are expensive and maybe not quite economical yet in some ways, that would be a way to mitigate the whole problem.”

The SFPUC is actively investing in storage projects in the Bay Area, though it is unclear when those would roll out further upstream.

“We are investing in solar power storage for both our Hetch Hetchy Power and CleanPowerSF programs to store solar energy produced in the middle of the day when electricity is now abundant on the grid and discharge that electricity when it is more scarce and costly to produce, like peak evening hours,” said John Cote, communications director for the agency. “This will help lessen the grid’s reliance on costlier, dirtier fossil fuels and reduce costs for power customers.”

For now, though, McDonnell is left paddling down the Tuolumne in the dark.

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