Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and Water System
Owned by San Francisco, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park provides water via water districts and private utilities to nearly 3 million people in 29 cities across the San Francisco Bay Area.
Due to its high altitude location and water supplied by snowmelt, water from the reservoir (provided by the Tuolumne River) does not require filtration. Stored in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir behind O’Shaughnessy Dam, the water is delivered by a gravity based system and aqueduct to the Bay Area.
According to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, “Hetch Hetchy Reservoir can store up to 117 billion gallons of drinking water for the Hetch Hetchy Regional Water System.”
The name Hetch Hetchy is a Sierra Miwok word for a type of wildgrass.
Hetch Hetchy has generated controversy since it was first proposed as a source of water following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Congress also had to approve the project because it was located in a national park and passed the Raker Act in 1913 to do so. John Muir and the Sierra Club unsuccessfully fought the reservoir’s establishment since it required flooding a scenic mountain valley. After its construction in the 1920s, various groups have lobbied to restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley to its natural state.
San Francisco voters defeated a local 2012 proposition to find an alternative water and power source (Hetchy Hetchy also generates electricity for the city. If passed, the proposition would have funded an $8 million study on how best to drain the valley. A separate vote would have been required on whether to demolish O’Shaughnessy Dam.
The San Francisco Bay Guardian, a progressive alternative newspaper that operated from 1966 to October 2014, ran stories claiming San Francisco sold the hydroelectricity to PG&E, who then resold it back to the public at a profit, in violation of the Act.
Different Presidential administrations have tried to address the issue, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s to Ronald Reagan’s to George W. Bush’s, which in 2003 made a failed attempt to allocate funds for a study into the removal of the dam and valley restoration.
The removal of the dam itself would be extremely costly, at least $3 to $10 billion, according to the California Department of Water Resources in a 2006 study. Most significantly, San Francisco would lose its primary water source.
A proposition to find an alternative water and power source was on the local 2012 ballet, and Bay Area voters soundly defeated it. Despite receiving 23 percent of the vote in support, members of Restore Hetch Hetchy, the group that put the measure on the ballot, vowed to carry on: “One goal was to win, sure, but also to build a political infrastructure in the city, educate voters about where their water comes from and create a debate about restoring Hetch Hetchy,” Executive Director Mike Marshall told the San Francisco Chronicle a few days after the vote.
Most recently, Restore Hetch Hetchy filed a petition on April 21, 2015 in Tuolumne County against the City and County of San Francisco and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, claiming the reservoir violates the California Constitution – specifically the mandate within Article X, Section 2 that requires water diversions for all water use must be “reasonable.”
The question was what constitutes “unreasonable method of diversion of water?” Restore Hetch Hetchy claimed the phrase had a broad meaning that had been previously applied in an environmental context. San Francisco maintained the phrase only pertained to water that was wasted, and there was no claim that the city wastes water, so it was a moot issue.
In May of 2016, a Tuolumne County Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying Restore Hetch Hetchy’s arguments were pre-empted by the 1913 federal Raker Act. The judge also noted the provision of the state Constitution used to support the arguments to remove the dam was not passed until 1928 — five years after the dam was built.
After the ruling Restore Hetch Hetchy indicated its efforts would continue, and the group intended to appeal the ruling.