Hetch Hetchy Could Drown Feinstein in 2012
By Dan Aiello
California Progress Report
If qualified, a local ballot measure in San Francisco calling for the restoration of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park could play a decisive role in next year’s U.S. Senate race where the Democrat incumbent, Dianne Feinstein, already faces troubling poll numbers, a campaign finance debacle and a potential Republican opponent with a venerable California pedigree.
The expected 2012 ballot measure will ask San Francisco’s environment-leaning, progressive voters to right what has been called the greatest environmental wrong in the nation’s history by returning the Hetch Hetchy Valley to the National Park Service for the 8 mile long valley’s eventual restoration.
Feinstein has long opposed the proposition of restoring the valley famed naturalist John Muir himself fought to save. Muir described Hetch Hetchy as “one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples,” and even today visitors instantly recognize the Hetch Hetchy as Yosemite Valley’s twin.
While the hope Hetch Hetchy could be restored was once considered a pipe dream, public education over the last decade that Hetch Hetchy is not the source of the city’s water but simply a holding place for it, has swayed many to the cause, including celebrities and even some conservatives with their own ideas on where storage dams should be built.
The valley’s restoration measure has a strong likelihood of garnering support from a majority of environmentally-minded San Francisco voters who may be disenfranchised with Feinstein’s decades-long role in preserving the valley as the city’s water receptacle, including personally removing from the Interior Department’s budget $7 million dollars earmarked by congress for a feasibility study to restore the valley. Her political opposition to the environmental cause could be seen as supporting corporations and special interests, potentially drawing away progressive campaign dollars and voter support from the Senator at a time when she is at her political weakest.
For the first time since being elected to the Senate in 1992, a plurality - 44 percent - of
Field Poll respondents were "not inclined" to vote for Feinstein while 41 percent would, according to Joe Garofoli at the San Francisco Chronicle. The margin of error for the survey is plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
In September Feinstein’s campaign treasurer, Kinde Durkee, was arrested for the alleged embezzlement of nearly $700,000 in campaign funds from a state candidate. Feinstein reported last week that her campaign was “wiped out,” reporting nearly $5 million dollars in “unauthorized withdrawals.”
State Republicans are still unsure who they will choose to challenge Feinstein, but one Republican considering a run has a distinguished pedigree, Michael Reagan, son of California’s former governor and the nation’s 40th president. Reagan confirmed with The Chronicle his interest, but did not elaborate.
According to the Public Policy Institute’s statistics on California voters, San Francisco Bay Area residents account for 27 percent of the state’s Democrats and 27 percent of the state’s Independent voters, giving the local issue the potential of influencing the outcome of the state’s senate race.
“The California Department of Water Resources report confirms that dismantling O’Shaugnessy Dam and draining the Hetch Hetchy reservoir are unwarranted and the cost is indefensible, particularly given the tremendous infrastructure needs facing our State,” Feinstein’s stated when the state’s Department of Resources issued a report saying the cost of restoring the Valley, increasing water storage elsewhere and building a water filtration system (San Francisco is currently exempted from this requirement because the Hetch Hetchy is considered a pristine reservoir) would exceed $10 billion dollars. “I hope this report lays to rest any further consideration at the State and Federal level of dismantling Hetch Hetchy —a truly remarkable system which provides exceptionally high-quality, reliable water to 2.4 million residents in the San Francisco Bay area,” Feinstein said.
Mike Marshall, Executive Director of the Restore Hetch Hetchy non-profit organization, disputes the cost and offers his own cost estimates, including $75 million to control the draw down of the valley to ensure native species, not invasive non-native species repopulate the habitat, $250-300 million to “re-plumb” the city’s pipes to the Don Pedro reservoir and up to a billion dollars to build a filtration system for the city’s water, “Which will be required in 25 years anyway,” claims Marshall, due to climate change and the increasing turbidity of the water.
Marshall points to reports showing high rates of Giardia and Cryptosporidium in San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, all of which get the unfiltered water from the Hetch Hetchy as proof the city has long needed water filtration.
The RHH’s $1.5 billion dollar estimate is significantly lower than the DWR report, and Marshall says they don’t know why. “The DWR report has footnotes saying the report was based on figures provided by the San Francisco PUC,” but the PUC failed to back up their figures with documentation requested five years ago. “We sent a letter to [the PUC commissioners] last week requesting a meeting on the issue” but we haven’t heard from them yet.
California Progress Report is awaiting a response from the PUC on the questions raised by Marshall.
Criticized for their support of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the Environmental Defense Fund is maintaining its public support for the Hetch Hetchy's restoration, but it has stopped investing resources in the issue. "We support restoration, we just stopped investing our resources in it," said Jennifer Witherspoon, Media Director for EDF. Witherspoon told CPR she has worked toward the restoration of the Hetch Hetchy for two decades, even securing actor Harrison Ford's participation in a video supporting the cause.
Some insiders allege the EDF decision to stop working on the Hetch Hetchy restoration reflects the organization’s need for Feinstein’s support on other issues, but Witherspoon disputes that and contends her organization has been an environmental watchdog over the BDCP, not an unconditional supporter of the plan.
While Hetch Hetchy lacks a half dome, it features many striking waterfalls and once a meandering Tuolomne River, the actual water source for San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. The Hetch Hetchy simply became a reservoir when the O’Shaugnessy dam was completed in 1923.
Hetch Hetchy is a Miwok term for grassy meadow.
The Hetch Hetchy’s destruction ended a national political fight that started the country’s environmental movement while sending Muir to an early grave, heartbroken by the destruction of the uniquely Californian habitat. More than 200 newspapers across the country called for the valley to be saved, going just on John Muir’s description and sketches of the valley, but after President Woodrow Wilson appointed a San Franciscan to head the Department of the Interior the debate was over and San Francisco was granted the right to dam the Hetch Hetchy.
Marshall sees the restoration of the Hetch Hetchy leading the environmental movement from conservation to restoration, much as the Hetch Hetchy battle began the environmental cause in the nation a century ago. “There’s very little attention paid to the fact that deforestation is a part of the climate change. We have to reduce carbon and gas emissions but we also have to improve the earth’s ability to absorb those emissions,” Marshall told CPR. “We need to restore the environment and begin to rebuild some of the natural places that were destroyed. The Hetch Hetchy can be a blueprint for how our nation can begin to restore what we’ve destroyed.”
According to Marshall, his organization, which currently operates on a $300,000 annual budget, has completed its polling and is currently in the process of drafting the initiative with the assistance of Olson, Hagel and Fishburn, LLP. The initiative will be submitted to the San Francisco City Attorney sometime in the third week of December in order to qualify for the November, 2012 ballot. Proponents will then have 180 days to collect the 7,500 signatures necessary to qualify the initiative for the ballot.
(This is the first in a series of articles covering the possible 2012 San Francisco ballot measure to return the Hetch Hetchy Valley(hetchhetchy.org) to the National Park Service for its eventual restoration.)
Dan Aiello is the Sacramento reporter for the California Progress Report.