The effort to restore this magnificent valley—which we have supported for many years–heads back to court, as this article from the Times Herald reports.
Two years after losing in court and six years after being rejected by voters, a Berkeley environmental group is continuing its long-running battle to drain Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, a linchpin of the water supply for 2.6 million Bay Area residents from San Francisco to San Jose to southern Alameda County.
The reservoir in Yosemite National Park, built in 1923, violates California’s constitution, according to a lawsuit from the nonprofit group, Restore Hetch Hetchy, because the constitution requires water to be diverted in a “reasonable” way, and there are other places to store Hetch Hetchy’s water that aren’t in a national park.
The group will pursue its appeal Wednesday morning in the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Fresno.
“Hetch Hetchy Valley was once one of the most spectacular, iconic landscapes in California, if not the world, and once the reservoir is emptied, it will come back,” said Spreck Rosekrans, executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy. “Visitors from throughout California, across America and around the world will come back to see the valley regain its natural splendor.”
But San Francisco officials, who own the Hetch Hetchy system, have fought the idea ferociously.
“San Francisco voters overwhelmingly rejected the idea of draining Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in 2012, because it was a terrible idea. It’s still a terrible idea today,” said San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera. “As California struggles to deal with recurring droughts and climate change, the last thing we should be doing is draining the main water supply for more than 2.6 million San Francisco Bay Area residents, which also generates clean, greenhouse-gas-free hydroelectric power.”
Hetch Hetchy water serves residents in four Bay Area counties, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Southern Alameda. Residents drink it in 26 cities and water districts — from San Francisco to Palo Alto to north San Jose to Hayward, Fremont and Union City.
At the time, San Francisco leaders argued they needed a more reliable water source following the fires that burned large sections of the city after the 1906 earthquake. Conservation groups battled the plan fiercely, noting that no dam had ever been built inside a national park. The fight to save the valley was the final battle of Sierra Club founder John Muir’s life. And the valley’s submersion has haunted many environmentalists in the century ever since.
Restore Hetch Hetchy argues that if the lake, which holds 360,000 acre feet of water — twice the capacity of Los Vaqueros Reservoir in Contra Costa County and four times the capacity of Anderson Reservoir in Santa Clara County — were drained, water could still be taken from the Tuolumne River and stored in other reservoirs instead. Among them: Don Pedro nearby, and several of the Hetch Hetchy system’s reservoirs in the Bay Area.
“Hetch Hetchy is not a source of water. It is a storage tank,” said Rosekrans. “And that storage tank can be moved downstream.”
The movement has been endorsed by actor Harrison Ford, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and four former Yosemite National Park superintendents: Bob Binnewies, B.J. Griffin, Dave Mihalic and Mike Tollefson.
But it faces a steep uphill climb. California’s senior U.S. senator, Dianne Feinstein, has adamantly opposed the idea. In 1987, when Reagan administration Interior Secretary Donald Hodel raised it, she called it “the worst idea since selling arms to the Ayatollah.”
In 2012, Restore Hetch Hetchy placed a measure on the San Francisco ballot that would have required the city to conduct an $8 million study on the impacts of draining the reservoir. It lost in a landslide, 77-23 percent.
In 2015, the group filed a lawsuit arguing that the reservoir violated California’s constitution. It was thrown out in 2016 by a Tuolumne County judge, who ruled that the provision requiring “reasonable” diversion of water was written in 1928 — five years after the reservoir was built — and that federal law pre-empts the state law.