San Francisco voters in November may be asked to decide whether to drain Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park and look elsewhere for drinking water.
A petition drive sponsored by the San Francisco-based nonprofit Restore Hetch Hetchy, headquartered in Sonora until 2009, garnered 15,800 signatures in support of emptying the reservoir and restoring the valley. The petition was submitted Monday to the city elections office with more than three times the number of signatures needed.
“The decision before San Francisco voters on this initiative this November is simple — if we waste less water we can save a national park,” Restore Hetch Hetchy Executive Director Mike Marshall said in a prepared statement.
Advocates of removing O’Shaughnessy Dam cite conservationist John Muir’s opposition to the flooding of Hetch Hetchy Valley. Muir wrote that “no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.” The valley’s beauty, prior to congressional approval for a dam and reservoir in the 1913 Raker Act, was comparable to Yosemite Valley, he said.
The controversial project, which supplies most of San Francisco’s water, plus water to many surrounding Bay Area municipalities and the Groveland Community Services District, has continued to divide those who support an attempt to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley to its original state and those who fear its removal would devastate the water supply for one of the country’s largest metropolitan areas.
That and other considerations caused the Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce in Sonora and the Yosemite Chamber of Commerce in Groveland to oppose draining the reservoir.
Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director George Segarini said the organization considered both the enormous cost of a restoration project, estimated at $3 billion to $10 billion in a 2006 state Department of Water Resources study, and “the hundreds of years it would take the valley to recuperate” to a state like that of pre-dam days.
“I think it’s beautiful right now,” Segarini added. “The water’s sitting there in the basin, the hills surrounding it and the falls coming in.”
Yosemite Chamber of Commerce Executive Director James Nagle took an even stronger stance in favor of leaving Hetch Hetchy alone.
“The concept is ludicrous. There’s no value in draining the lake,” Nagle said.
He said proponents of draining the lake “will never see the benefit of it in their lifetimes” and “the cost, especially in an economy like this, is also ludicrous.”
Nagle said the state as a whole cannot afford to reduce water storage.
“The drought situation ... requires as much as possible,” he said.
Groveland Community Services District General Manager Gary Mello did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment on the initiative’s potential impacts to the GCSD water system.
The text of the initiative calls on the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to develop a plan that includes alternatives to Hetch Hetchy for securing the city’s water supply, and a subsequent 2016 vote would be required to approve the plan and actually begin to drain the reservoir.
The Sierra Club, founded by Muir, has long advocated the restoration of Hetch Hetchy, but has not yet developed a stance on this particular measure. Sierra Club Mother Lode Chapter Tuolumne Group Chairman Jon Sturtevant said the local group will discuss the initiative when it meets tonight.
Though Restore Hetch Hetchy may have grown up in Sonora, and certainly has its sympathizers remaining in the area, the thrust of its efforts are now focused on galvanizing support in San Francisco.
If San Francisco signed on to the cause, the group would have an easier time taking its fight to the state and federal levels, Marshall told The Union Democrat at the time of the move.
Bob Hackamack, a retired engineer in Twain Harte, remains on the Restore board of directors. Jerry Cadagan, the former board president, lives in Sonora. Neither Hackamack nor Cadagan could be reached Wednesday for comment on this story. Ron Good, an executive director of the Restore group while it was in Sonora, has moved out of the area, Sturtevant said.