• Otter Views: Hetch Hetchy Musings

    by Tom Stevens

    Monday morning showers sent rainwater coursing down the street gutters past the house. The sight of all that fresh, sparkly water racing seaward provoked the usual mixed reactions.

    Briefly summarized, they were: “Yay, it’s raining!” and “Wah, good water’s getting away!”

    These are not original thoughts. The first pre-hominid who scratched out muddy channels to irrigate primordial yams probably voiced the same dilemma in a more guttural way.

    “Gotugga! Gibka lowana mokka!”

    Whatever the words, watching fresh water escape human usage and tumble over sea cliffs can be painful. The saddest person I’ve seen in that regard was a Maui sugar planter. He was parked beside the Hana road one rainy morning watching the waterfalls multiply.

    “Isn’t this fantastic?” I shouted. He rolled down his window. The frenzied tropical rain drummed on his car roof like Mongo Santamaria. All around us, raging torrents swept uprooted guava saplings down jungle gullies. Normally dry stream beds fire-hosed so much water over the cliffs the ground shook.

    His company’s dikes, flumes and tunnels were diverting millions of gallons from those same streams even as we spoke, but the manager still looked mournful. “I can’t help it,” he said. “I keep thinking of all the water we’re not catching.”

    Similar thoughts about Sierra snowmelt a century ago motivated the builders of the Bay Area’s premier water catchment, the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. Located at the north end of Yosemite National Park, the reservoir and its transmission system capture drinking water and generate hydroelectric power for San Francisco and its suburbs.

    From an engineering standpoint, the gravity-flow Hetch Hetchy system stands among such early 20th century marvels as the Panama Canal and the Holland Tunnel. But that eminence came at a price: the flooding of a wilderness area comparable in majesty to Yosemite Valley. The great naturalist John Muir’s long and futile battle to halt the reservoir project supposedly broke his heart.

    A recent trip to Hetch Hetchy prompted the same mixed reactions as did Monday’s showers. I was happy finally to visit the place I’d heard so much about. And having been there, I can see why Hetch Hetchy is once again a battleground of clashing visions and values. I just don’t know whose vision to support.

    Some argue that taking down the O’Shaughnessy dam would undo the great wrong San Francisco money men and their Congressional fixers perpetrated a century ago. Draining the reservoir could also restore one of America’s most pristine (and unseen) wonders: a broad river valley flanked by sheer granite faces and immense domes. Freeing the Tuolumne might also bring back the flora and fauna of a lost wild river habitat.

    On the other side are those who argue that the system’s social and economic benefits far outweigh any aesthetic, recreational or ecological value to be gained by dismantling it. They challenge the dismantlers to identify a cleaner, safer, cheaper and more proven way to supply water and power to two million customers.

    Still on the fence after hiking around Hetch-Hetchy for a day, I put the question to my guide as we exited, blinking, from the tunnel. “What do you think? Should the dam come down?”

    “No,” she said. “This place should be left as it is.”

    “Because of the water and power aspect?”

    “That’s a factor, but I was really thinking about Yosemite Valley. If they turn this into another Yosemite Valley, overnight there’ll be RV camps and motels, double decker buses, traffic jams, air pollution, millions of tourists. You want to trade this for that?”

    Gazing over the tourquoise reservoir and its cradle of mountains, I conceded her point. Hetch-Hetchy had hosted but a few dozen of us all day, and we could only access the place on foot. Permitted wilderness backpackers aside, all visitors had to be out by dusk. There was no commerce and no water access. In a way its pragmatic original exploiters probably never foresaw, Hetch Hetchy’s solitude and beauty have been preserved.

    Returning to PG, I read a sobering climate change study titled “The Weather of the Future.” One chapter explained how most of California’s drinking and irrigation water flows at some point through the vulnerable San Joaquin delta.

    As much of the delta lies below sea level, a major earthquake and/or “superstorm” ocean surges could trigger salt water intrusion from nearby San Francisco Bay. In a matter of days, that could compromise irrigation and drinking water for tens of millions of users.

    That’s a worst-case scenario not likely to occur. Still, it prompts skepticism about plans to dismantle a long-proven and fully functional water and power supply system already in place.

    If the climate changes and Sierra snowmelt dwindles, Central California might need Hetch Hetchy intact.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on October 26, 2012

    Topics: Otter Views

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