Ballot Initiative Could Restore Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park

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Hetch Hetchy valley before dam

Hetch Hetchy, before the dam was built

When you hear “Yosemite,” you probably think of Yosemite Valley, with its world-class waterfalls and famous rock formations. But another valley in Yosemite National Park offers scenery just as stunning.

At least, it would, if it weren’t filled with water. In 1923, Hetch Hetchy, known as “Yosemite’s twin,” was dammed to provide drinking water for San Francisco. Today the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir stores 117 billion gallons of alpine water so pure it’s exempt from filtration rules.

But an initiative launched by Restore Hetch Hetchy (RHH) could see the dam destroyed and the valley restored to its natural state. If RHH can secure 7,400 supportive signatures, Californians will vote on a ballot measure to do just that.

John Muir, the patron saint of the preservation movement, was fiercely opposed to the flooding of Hetch Hetchy. “Dam Hetch Hetchy!” he exclaimed. “As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.” Hetch Hetchy was Muir’s last great fight, and one of the few he lost.

Modern San Francisco residents might not consider themselves “devotees of ravaging commercialism” Yosemite National Park Mapwith “a perfect contempt for Nature,” as Muir put it, but many would probably object to draining the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Besides providing water to the Bay Area, the dam generates hydroelectricity that powers buses, light rail, street lighting, and cable cars. From a climate perspective (as opposed to an environmental one), damming Hetch Hetchy might not have been a bad idea.

However, the Reservoir isn’t as essential as many believe. According to RHH,

Hetch Hetchy is only one of nine reservoirs that comprise the San Francisco Public Utility Commission’s water system. Although Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is the most well-known, it stores less than 25% of the system’s water. San Francisco’s water-bank in Don Pedro Reservoir, downstream on the Tuolumne River, holds twice as much water as Hetch Hetchy.

If the dam at Hetch Hetchy were removed, San Francisco would still get water from the Tuolumne River; the water would simply be stored at a different location. So what’s the catch? Mainly the price tag. At up to $10 billion, the project will be a bit unpalatable in a recession. Still, it wouldn’t be unprecedented–hundreds of dams have been torn down in the U.S. over the last fifteen years.

Restoring nearly a century of damage to the Hetch Hetchy valley would be an intensely interesting challenge in itself. Even RHH calls it “the most ambitious and audacious act of environmental preservation in our history.” Yet a restored Hetch Hetchy would attract tourists and their money, helping to relieve the overcrowded Yosemite Valley.

This is a multi-sided issue, one that could potentially pit climate hawks against environmental preservationists. Certainly it will divide the famously green and progressive San Francisco.

What do you think?

 

Learn more: The GuardianRestore Hetch Hetchy

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Worried About Shark Attacks? The Sharks are the Ones That Should be Scared

With Shark Week drawing to a close, the ocean’s top predator is swimming through many Americans’ minds. But even if you haven’t been tuned in to the Discovery Channel, you might have heard that there were 79 shark attacks in 2010, up 25 percent from the year before.

That’s not quite correct. There were actually millions of shark attacks last year. In all but those 79, the sharks were the victims.

We’ve all heard that the chances of getting bitten, not to mention eaten, by a shark are extremely low, as humans are not sharks’ normal prey. But it only takes a few horror stories (and a blockbuster film or two) to make us fear and loathe the cartilaginous hunters.

The truth is that sharks have much more reason to be afraid of us. Worldwide, less than 10 people per year die from shark attacks, while between 20 million and 100 million sharks are killed by humans. Some sharks are killed for sport, but most are killed for profit, the fins being especially valuable. As renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle explains in her book The World is Blue, 

In 1980, designated as the “Year of the Ocean” in the United States, a perverse but well-intended campaign was intiiated at NOAA to help fishermen by developing markets for sharks as “underutilized species” and by fostering new connections to Asian consumers. In two decades, fears about man-eating sharks shifted to man…eating sharks….

For centuries, soup made from the fins of sharks has been a traditional but rare treat in China, the primary attraction being the difficultury of obtaining the vital ingredients…. By the end of the 20th century, however, new wealth in Asia and new means of finding, catching, and marketing sharks made shark-fin soup much more commonplace.

Because shark fins are in higher demand than meat, fishermen haul their catches on deck, slice the fins off, and throw the still-living sharks overboard. As many as 73 million sharks die each year from this practice.

Shark finning is illegal in the U.S., but a loophole allows shark fins to be imported into California. Ocean Conservancy, NRDC, and other conservation groups are campaigning for a bill to ban the trade of shark fins–you can sign the petition here, even if you don’t live in California. Change.org also has a petition asking Food Network to stop featuring recipes that include shark meat.

Sharks have survived for 400 million years, but humans may manage to wipe them out in a geological heartbeat. About a third of shark species are endangered, with some populations declining 90 percent in recent years. And any ecologist will tell you that eliminating top predators can have a disastrous effect on an ecosystem.

Of course, sharks aren’t the only fish in trouble. After decades of irresponsible fishing, we are beginning to realize that the ocean does not have an infinite capacity to restore wildlife. In 2003, nearly a third of marine fisheries were in a state of collapse, and research indicates that the remaining stocks could be gone within 50 years.

Entire books have been written on the causes and impacts of this decline, but the solutions are not out of reach. In your daily life, you can choose to buy sustainable seafood (Monterey Bay Aquarium’s guide will help you with that). On a political level, you can join the effort to restore the oceans–for example, Mission Blue, founded by the brilliant Ms. Earle, is working to establish marine protected areas, or “hope spots.”

We named our planet Earth because that’s where our species dwells, but it would be more accurate to call it Ocean. We hear a lot about saving the earth; now we need a new worldwide effort to save the seas. Sharks are a good place to begin.

And if we can save the oceans, we just might save the humans in the process.

[Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Victory for the Sea Shepherd: Japan Cuts Short Whaling Season

Activists halt whale slaughter in Southern Ocean and prevent hunters from meeting quota

For years, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been giving new meaning to the word activism, garnering both fame and controversy with its agressive disruption of Japanese whaling activities. This week, Sea Shepherd’s direct-action tactics payed off in a tremendous way.

First, some background: Commercial whaling is currently illegal, but the ban allows whale-hunting for scientific purposes. Japan uses this loophole to continue its commercial harvest, killing hundreds of whales each year for “research” and selling their meat on the open market.

This year, in an unprecedented decision, the Japanese fleets have retreated halfway through the whaling season, having taken less than 20 percent of their annual quota of 1,000 whales. At first, the suspension was said to be temporary, but now it’s official. The Japanese government has recalled the whaling fleet, due to harassment by Sea Shepherd activists. Japan’s agriculture minister, Michihiko Kano, told reporters the hunt had been called off because of safety concerns:

“We had no choice but to end the season to ensure the safety of lives, assets and our ships.”

But the Sea Shepherds could not have posed a serious physical threat to the whalers. The activists use strategies that are extreme but nonviolent. In the most recent case, they were obstructing the stern of a factory ship to prevent it from hauling whales onboard. As Ecorazzi points out,

…it’s worth noting that the Sea Shepherd’s tactics have not changed in the seven years they’ve been harassing the Japanese whaling fleet. So it’s mighty interesting that safety would suddenly force an early return — an unprecedented decision, save a need for repair — in the time that Japan has been hunting whales.

The truth is that the whaling fleet was simply unable to operate. Sea Shepherd has been enforcing an unofficial suspension of whaling in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary for several weeks. Captain Paul Watson claims that his crews have blocked all whaling operations since February 9 and 75 percent of operations for the month of January.

Economics was probably another factor in the whaling fleet’s withdrawal. Apparently, the demand for whale meat is declining, and killing the animals may not be worth the trouble. Of course, Japan can’t publicly say that without admitting that scientific research is not the real motive for its whaling.

The halt of whaling in the Southern Ocean is a major victory for the activists that have fought relentlessly to stop the slaughter. In an update on the Sea Shepherd web site, Paul Watson said,

“I have a crew of 88 very happy people from 23 different nations including Japan and they are absolutely thrilled that the whalers are heading home and the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary is now indeed a real sanctuary.”