Hetch Hetchy ballot fight heats up as election nears

S.F. Examiner File PhotoDrain it? Restore Hetch Hetchy is backing a measure to study the feasibility of reconfiguring The City’s drinking water system.

The latest battle in the intermittent centurylong war to drain the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park is intensifying as the Nov. 6 election approaches.

Backers of Proposition F think it behooves San Franciscans to approve an $8 million feasibility study on how to reconfigure its drinking water system while dismantling the O’Shaughnessy Dam and restoring the valley to its original state. But opponents of the measure say that the potential disassembly of critical infrastructure is conspicuously absent from the campaign material of proponents, who deceptively focus instead on The City’s less-than-exemplary water recycling record.

Mike Marshall, executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy, the group backing the measure, said the reservoir in question is just one of several that San Francisco relies upon for drinking water. But P.J. Johnston, a spokesman for Save Hetch Hetchy, the group opposing Proposition F, says it’s indisputable that The City’s main source of water is piped in from Yosemite.

“It’s like saying, ‘We’ll rip out your heart, but don’t worry because you’ve got other organs,’” he said.

While Johnston conceded that San Francisco would probably not be inclined to construct a dam inside a national park if the decision were being made today, he said it is not economically prudent for The City to discard an effective system that provides clean water and cheap electric power.

But Marshall said the time is now for water users to send a message to The City and to Congress that they want to begin figuring out how to return a grand valley to its natural state and reverse a misguided decision from the early 20th century. He views restoring Hetch Hetchy as one step toward creating a more sustainable water system that doesn’t completely discard stormwater and helps salmon populations in the Tuolumne River.

Johnston pointed to at least seven comprehensive studies that have been conducted by several organizations between 1988 and 2006. Thus, he contends that Restore Hetch Hetchy already knows the answers to the study it wants San Franciscans to approve in next month’s election. If the measure passes muster with a majority of voters, the group could come back as soon as 2016 seeking final approval to replace the reservoir with proposed alternative water sources.

Marshall said he would expect any funding for dismantling of the dam to come from a combination of private, local, state and federal dollars. That could be complicated considering that U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the former San Francisco mayor, is dead-set against removal of the reservoir, which she has called a “birthright” for citizens.

“We’re laying the foundation for a post-Feinstein era,” Marshall said.

Although environmental organizations stand with the effort as long as viable power and water alternatives are identified, the influential Sierra Club has remained neutral — despite the issue being one of its first major political battles in the early 20th century.

dschreiber@sfexaminer.com

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