Hetch Hetchy opponents prepare initiative

As environmentalists said they will file paperwork today for a ballot initiative requiring city officials to plan for the possible removal of the O’Shaughnessy Dam and the draining of the Hetchy Hetch Reservoir, Mayor Ed Lee denounced their proposal.

Restore Hetch Hetchy, a group devoted to returning the valley in Yosemite National Park to its original state, will need to gather 9,702 signatures by July 9 to put the initiative on November’s ballot.

“San Francisco has an antiquated water system that for 80 years has been causing significant damage to the environment,” said Mike Marshall, director of Restore Hetch Hetchy. “We’re green in many ways, we lead the country in many ways … but when it comes to water, we’re just dead last.”

Marshall explained that the initiative would call for the City not only to explore the feasibility of draining the reservoir but also to look into other sources of tap water, including groundwater and recycled waste water. The initiative states that the study’s cost cannot exceed $8 million.

“San Francisco doesn’t recycle a drop of water, whereas Orange County recycles 100 million gallons,” Marshall said.

San Francisco’s primary source of water is the Tuolumne River, which was dammed in the 1920s to form the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, one of nine that The City uses. Marshall said that even if Hetch Hetchy is drained, The City could get continue to get water from the river’s lower reaches.

Beyond the possible environmental impact of the initiative, Restore Hetch Hetchy argued that The City should explore local sources of water in case earthquakes, droughts or global warming disrupt the flow from the Tuolumne River.

“There’s off-the-charts support for restoring the water system,” Marshall said, citing a 2011 internal poll.

That poll found that found 55 percent of voters informed about San Francisco’s water supply would support this initiative and 67 percent wanted The City to create a more sustainable water system. The vast majority of voters supported increasing The City’s use of rain water and recycled water.

The survey showed that only 46 percent of voters wanted to actually drain Hetch Hetchy, while 48 percent opposed the idea.

Falling squarely in the latter camp is Mayor Ed Lee, who slammed the proposal Tuesday morning.

“As insane as this is, it is, in fact, insane,” Lee said at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast.

Lee also warned the business community to avoid anyone trying to “rope you into some masked discussion about water sustainability.” The mayor described San Francisco’s water as the “cleanest” and the dam as creating one of the “strongest clean hydroelectric sources” of power.

Officials at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which manages the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, are not legally allowed to comment on a proposed ballot initiative. The commission’s water system water and hydropower to 2.6 million Bay Area residents.

If the ballot measure passes, The City would be required to finish planning by 2015, in time to place an initiative on the 2016 ballot that would actually require the reservoir to be drained.


Dan Schreiber contributed to this report.

What the initiative would do

The Water Sustainability and Environmental Restoration Planning Act of 2012 would create a task force that would:

Maintain the Tuolumne River as The City’s principal source of tap water.

Plan a more sustainable water system, to include water recycling, storm water and groundwater.

Find green sources of energy that could replace the hydropower of the O’Shaughnessy Dam.

Plan to reverse the environmental damage caused by the water system, including allowing Hetch Hetchy to be turned over to the National Park Service for restoration.

Finish its work by November 2015, in time for follow-up initiative on draining the reservoir for 2016 ballot.

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