Kvetching over Hetch Hetchy

All right, we love what John Muir loved, as anyone with any aesthetic sense and appreciation for nature would. Muir loved the Hetch Hetchy Valley, even to the lengths of idolatry, and when in 1906 thirsty San Franciscans asked the federal government to dam it, the great naturalist waged a relentless crusade against what would become The City’s

principal water supply.

Muir, obviously, lost in 1923 when the congressionally authorized

O’Shaughnessy Dam filled the valley, part of Yosemite National Park, with currents from the Tuolumne River. This week, Muir’s heirs, who long since turned his zeal into goofy orthodoxy, lost again. A study called for two years ago by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to weigh the feasibility of draining O’Shaughnessy and returning Hetch Hetchy to a pristine state — a Muirist fantasy — reported back.

Sure, the Department of Water Resources report said, the fantasy is feasible. Technically. Did we mention that, 37 years ago, a man first walked the lunar surface? You could do it, but it would cost

$3 billion to $10 billion of the taxpayers’ money. Not … exactly … a priority. And when you try to calculate the political challenge presented to the 2.4 million residents in San Francisco, Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties who consume O’Shaughnessy water, well, we’re back to the moon.

The DWR, then, essentially closed down the fantasy, sparing the governor any political expense. But it did so with admirable bureaucratic finesse, teasing the drainers with a kind of graduate student demonstration of the notion’s possibility. Some of the enthusiasts haven’t grasped the distinction between feasibility and priority.

Among them: the editors of The Sacramento Bee, who point (really) to a Pulitzer Prize awarded for their editorial series on behalf of the Hetch Hetchy fantasy. The Bee’s headline: “Hetch Hetchy plan feasible, report says.” We love spin.

It’s in the nature of fantasies that some people, otherwise sensible, get heavily invested in them. “The current body of information,” reacted Ron Good, executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy, “puts a lot of emphasis on costs and not enough on benefits.” Well, yeah. The next thing you expect him to say is that the benefits are “incalculable.”

To arrange the state’s priorities, the governor needed something closer to calculable. That’s what the DWR gave him. You could indulge a conspiracy theory that the report was preordained, delivering precisely the conclusion desired. But that suspicion is belied by the governor’s amply exhibited green side, his calculations not so exacting when handing out solar subsidies.

Regarding Hetch Hetchy, John Muir bleated that “no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the hearts of man.” So this is religion, then? You can’t argue the theology, but you must, if you’re the governor of all Californians, keep the spigots working.

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