By TIM HEARDEN
SAN FRANCISCO -- Two water districts in the San Joaquin Valley are voicing concerns over a proposal here to drain the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park, which provides water for an estimated 2.5 million San Francisco Bay area customers.
San Francisco voters will consider in November a measure to study removing or breaching the city-owned Tuolumne River dam at Hetch Hetchy and restoring the valley to its natural state. If it is approved, another ballot measure in four years would spell out details of the project.
However, the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts, which together provide irrigation for several hundred square miles of farmland, say their Don Pedro Reservoir can't take on any more water if Hetch Hetchy's dam comes out.
Further, the two districts chide San Francisco officials for trying to link the 30-year-old Don Pedro dam's relicensing to Hetch Hetchy's fate, and they say it's the wrong time to take away any dams.
"We don't feel this is the time to reduce water storage capacity in our water-short state," MID spokeswoman Melissa Williams said, "or reduce the amount of clean, affordable energy in California."
Restore Hetch Hetchy, the group behind the ballot measure, argues the reservoir is only one of nine that comprise the San Francisco Public Utility Commission's water system and stores less than one-quarter of the system's water.
The city has a water bank in the Don Pedro Reservoir and has the nearby Cherry Reservoir, to which more water can be diverted from the Tuolumne River upstream from Don Pedro.
Spreck Rosekrans, Restore Hetch Hetchy's director of policy, said no impact would be felt by farms that rely on water from the river.
"By diverting the Tuolumne River below Yosemite National Park and by diverting storage supplies from Cherry Reservoir during the dry portion of the year, 95 percent of the water that currently flows from the Tuolumne River to the Bay area would still be available," Rosekrans said.
"The remaining 5 percent needs to be replaced by adding additional storage to the system, conserving water, recycling water or other means," he said.
The hydrology debate is one of many generated by the ballot initiative, Measure F, which ironically has the support of Republican lawmakers and environmentalists but is opposed by city officials and the city's two most powerful Democrats, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Nancy Pelosi.
Adding to the irony is that many Democratic leaders have pushed for dam removal in other parts of the country, including the Klamath Basin, although Feinstein and Pelosi have been relatively silent on that issue.
City officials argue there are no real alternatives to Hetch Hetchy. The gravity-fed system serves 7 percent of California's population, with turbines from its dams generating power for city buildings, streetlights and traffic signals, the airport and the transit system, they argue.
Studies by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the California Department of Water Resources and others show restoring the valley is technically feasible.
However, the cost estimates range from $3 billion to $10 billion, and Measure F doesn't spell out who would pay the bill.
Neither Feinstein's nor Pelosi's offices returned messages from the Capital Press seeking comment. Feinstein told The AP that replacing the water supply from Hetch Hetchy would be "unrealistic when California already lacks infrastructure to provide enough water for its economy or environment."
Still, Rosekrans said the question of whether to return the Hetch Hetchy Valley to its natural state is "a conversation worth having," and he believes San Francisco residents will be open to studying the idea.
"This has been a difficult issue for the elected officials who represent San Francisco, and they've been unwilling to engage in a conversation about restoring one of America's flagship national parks," he said. "So we're taking the issue to the people of San Francisco. If the people lead, the leaders will follow."
Restore Hetch Hetchy: http://www.hetchhetchy.org/