Ballot Initiative Could Restore Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park


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



SanFran to pass nation’s first mandatory composting law

San Francisco, which already diverts 72 percent of its waste away from landfills and into recycling and composting programs, is passing the nation’s most ambitious recycling law today.  Mayor Gavin Newsom is expected to sign a new mandatory composting ordinance.  On the Huffington Post, he writes,

We recently conducted a waste-stream analysis and discovered that about two thirds of the garbage people throw away–half a million tons each year–could have been recycled or turned to compost. If we were able to capture everything, we’d be recycling 90 percent–preventing additional waste material from going to the landfill, and creating hundreds of green-collar jobs.

When food scraps break down in an oxygen-starved landfill it creates large quantities of methane gas, a greenhouse gas 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide when measured over a 20 year period. It also creates acids that can leach toxins from the landfill.

Composting food scraps produces little to no methane because there is sufficient oxygen in the process. And using the resulting compost reduces greenhouse gases by returning carbon to the soil, increasing plant growth, and reducing emissions associated with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. Recent studies show that farming one acre of land using conventional industrial methods releases 3,700 pounds of carbon into the atmosphere each year. Farmed sustainably, with compost and cover crops, that same acre will put 12,000 pounds of carbon back into the earth.

Three garbage bins will be issued: one for trash, one for recyclables, and one for compost.  Garbage collectors who find items sorted improperly will leave a note reminding the owner how to separate trash.
Some residents are concerned about this expansion of government control; however, city officials are assuring them
that “fines will only be charged in egregious cases.”  Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for the mayor, explains “We are not going to throw you in the clink for putting your coffee grounds in the wrong bin.”
In a progressive area where recycling is already popular, this ordinance will probably make it easier for people to be greener, something most of them are willing to do.
Though it might be more difficult to pass such regulations in other cities, where residents may be less cooperative, I would love to see mandatory recycling and composting spread throughout the nation.  It would reduce GHG emissions drastically if every major city followed San Francisco in setting a goal of zero landfill waste by 2020.  And I imagine more people would recycle if they were offered a single-stream, curbside option.
So, kudos to Gavin Newsom.  Let’s hope that the rest of the country will follow his city in passing ambitious environmental laws.