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March 21, 2006 > Hetch Hetchy - a series

Hetch Hetchy - a series

When discussing availability and use of water resources of any area, the stakes are always high. Water is vital for life and growth, whether as an individual, town or city. Local history is inexorably entwined with neighboring aquifers and rivers as well as external sources that may travel many miles to sustain life. Although some of our local supply is easily visible, a major water resource runs through the Tri-City area encased in large pipes with only pump houses and occasional above ground pipes to signal passage of gallons of water measured in millions. Not only water, but electrical energy generated from the movement of that water passes through the area as well. The major and ultimate beneficiary of this river is the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and its customers including Alameda County Water District (ACWD).

The strange sounding name of the source, Hetch Hetchy, is from the Native American Miwok language describing grass with edible seeds that grows in a grand valley in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This valley was carved by a glacier in a process similar to the origin of Yosemite Valley. In fact, Hetch Hetchy is part of Yosemite National Park. To discover why this valley has such a large impact on the San Francisco Bay Area requires a peek into the past.

Following the 1906 earthquake and fires that devastated much of San Francisco, access to a reliable water source became a prime objective of that city. Although debatable, many claimed that local water sources were inadequate. San Francisco applied to the United States Department of the Interior to gain water rights to Hetch Hetchy, the beginning of a 7-year environmental battle with the Sierra Club, led by the environmentalist John Muir. Two decades earlier, in 1890, Congress had preserved Hetch Hetchy Valley as part of Yosemite National Park.

A heated nationwide debate ensued but was terminated as the Raker Act, authored by U.S. Rep. John E. Raker of Manteca, became law in 1914, allowing Federal lands in the Sierra Nevada to be used for a water system. San Francisco's plan to tap Sierra waters was supported by many Bay Area communities including Burlingame, Hayward, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Redwood City, San Mateo and ACWD. Local support was influential in persuading Congress to pass the Raker Act and urging President Woodrow Wilson to sign it. The Tuolumne River was dammed (O'Shaughnessy Dam) transforming the valley into a huge reservoir. Today, much of the Hetch Hetchy Valley lies below 300 feet of water.

San Francisco has begun a $3.6 billion Capital Improvement Program to repair and modernize its water supply system. Taking advantage of the planned overhaul, an environmentalist movement to replace Hetch Hetchy water storage and hydroelectric energy through viable alternatives has gained momentum in recent years. Claiming a "win-win" solution, a proposal to remove the O'Shaughnessy Dam is gaining advocates while the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission resists the idea, claiming water and energy assumptions as well as cost estimates are flawed. In this series, we will attempt to understand the issues involved and the local effects of this river flowing through our area.

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