Controversy over Hetch Hetchy water system

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(KTSF by Jessie Liang)

The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, located inside Yosemite National Park, is some 160 miles from the San Francisco Bay Area. Yet its long-distance delivery system relies entirely on gravity. For some 70 years, the system has never been interrupted but the controversy surrounding it has not stopped. Environmental group Restore Hetch Hetchy plans to submit to the Department of Elections on February 29th to let the voters decide whether the dam should be taken down in the upcoming November election. If the dam is removed and a new system built, will there be any new problem?

Surrounded by mountains and 3,800 feet above sea level, the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir collects its water from Sierra snowmelt. Covering an area of 460 square miles, it can store 170 billion gallons of water, with 200 million gallons going to 2.5 million people in the San Francisco Bay Area. That accounts for 85% of the water supply. The rest comes from local rain sources in the Bay Area. The new Tesla plant is the first facility to use ultraviolet light to kill parasites before public consumption.

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SFPUC engineer Bijan Ahmadzadeh said, “The water comes through the pipelines and once it enters our facility here, the water goes to 4 individuals pipelines and merge into one, and goes through the process to be treated.”

After that, some of the water will be delivered to more than 10 reservoirs in San Francisco, with the one in the Sunset District being the largest. David Briggs, Manager of Water Supply and Treatment said, “About 60% of the supply in SF comes from these two basins, and at any given time 45% of all of the potable water storage in San Francisco is right here.”

SFPUC’s regional communications director Alison A. Kastama said, “We’re on top of the lower Crystal Spring Dam, originally it was part of the Spring Water Company system, which was built in the 1890s. So it’s one of the oldest dams in our system. In case we lose connection to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, our main supply up in the mountain, this will be the backup for San Mateo and San Francisco.

The Calaveras Reservoir is the largest of the Hetch Hetchy system in the Bay Area.

The Hetch Hetchy has never experienced any interruption in the past 70 years but the controversy surrounding it began as early as the system’s early planning stage more than a century ago. Republican Congressman Dan Lungren recently asked the Secretary of the Interior whether San Francisco has violated the federal Raker Act that requires the city to use local water resources first before tapping into Hetch Hetchy water. He said that many local governments such as Los Angeles and Orange counties have wastewater recycling programs but not San Francisco. He and some environmentalists want the dam removed and return the valley to its natural beauty.

Movie star Harrison Ford made a video to promote restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley. Executive Director of Restore Hetch Hetchy Mike Marshall said “Yosemite is the only place that allows a dam in the park. The state of California did some modeling and they determined that the value of restoring the valley would be upward of $6 billion to the state of California. If that is the case, then $1.5 to $3 billion price tag of restoring the valley is a good deal.”

But Congresswoman, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, and U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein, both oppose taking down the dam, saying the idea doesn’t make sense. In her letter to the Interior Secretary, Senator Feinstein said San Francisco is launching 3 water recycling programs, and collaborating with other water agencies to explore desalination. In addition, the SFPUC said it is also beginning to use recycled water to irrigate two golf courses this year.

Spokesman for SFPUC Tyrone Jue said, “Our entire system is operated by gravity, which is why we keep our costs so low. If you take the system away and resort to pumping, it’ll take energy and cost money.”

David Chu, President of the Board of Supervisors, said it had better be a very careful consideration before tearing down the dam. “The Hetch Hetchy system has managed to reliably deliver our water, along with renewable energy giving us water that’s clean and pristine. I think this system works very well. We would need to have some really compelling reasons to consider destroying Hetch Hetch.”

What is the public’s reaction?  One man said, “I think the water is good the way it is. We should keep where it’s at.” The other woman said, “It’s important to have our water but it’s also important to keep our natural habitat and national park.”

The environmental group plans to submit 7,500 signatures required to get on this year’s November ballot. Republican Congressman Devin Nunes from the Central Valley said the 1913 Raker Act requires that San Francisco pays only $30,000 a year to the federal government.  Nunes says it should be raised to $34 million a year.

(Copyright 2012 KTSF.  All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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