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Winter storms fill Hetch Hetchy, renew debate about reservoir's future

Conservationists build case for restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite
Conservationists build case for restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite 03:25

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – Another big payoff from the January storms, San Francisco's water storage system is just about full.

That includes Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park, which will likely reach capacity if we get more storms this winter.

Visitors might still need chains to get down Evergreen Road this time of year, but a trip to Hetch Hetchy reveals an example of the potent storms, and a reservoir of controversy for 100 years.

The storms have not stopped delivering in Yosemite. Water continues to pour across the granite, and eventually into Hetch Hetchy.

The jewel of the San Francisco water system is expected to reach capacity for the first time since 2019. With the entire system full, the city will be sitting on about seven years' worth of water.

While there are still plenty of parts of California facing real water challenges, San Francisco, by comparison, has an embarrassment of riches here.

Like all things water in California, Hetch Hetchy is complicated.

Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park in the winter of 2023. CBS

"In over 100 years no one no one else has built a dam in a national park," explained Spreck Rosekrans, Executive Director of Restore Hetch Hetchy. "It's the one time we've done this. It can be undone. It would inspire people to be able to go to Hetch Hetchy and see it come back." 

In the Restore Hetch Hetchy office one can see any number of visions of the valley's past, and possibly, the valley's future.

"Stages of restoration, looking like this, initially," Rosekrans says of art depicting a renewed valley. "Then very quickly like this. Then more like this."

Rosenkrans is leading an effort that started as soon as the O'Shaughnessy Dam was completed in 1923. The argument is that Hetch Hetchy is just a fraction of the larger system. That its storage volume could be replaced, either above or below ground. Hetch Hetchy, they say, is unnecessary.

"We want people to have reliable water, but it can be done without storing it in Yosemite National Park," he said. "Nobody is talking about damming Yosemite Valley."

O'Shaughnessy Dam and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park, Winter 2023. CBS

Restoration has long faced powerful opposition. City residents themselves voted down a ballot measure to explore the idea back in 2012. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has famously opposed it for decades.

Another approach to the question might be 'Is it possible?'

"There are also some new sources of water that San Francisco has never explored," said Dr. Peter Gleick, founder of the Pacific Institute. "Including, particularly, recycling treated wastewater. We're doing that in Los Angeles. They do that in the East Bay."

Gleick said restoration can pencil out. Expanding energy options can replace the power lost at O'Shaughnessy, and there are any number of ways to replace storage within the existing system.

It will, however, be a very hard sell in a time defined largely by drought.

"It's absolutely a hard lift politically," Gleick acknowledged. "But, I think it's inevitable that we're going to take that dam down. Not in my lifetime is my guess, but someday, some politician in San Francisco is going to say, 'This is the right thing to do.' This is going to be one of the world's most amazing ecological restoration projects."

"It takes the actual clips in the background and transposes Tuolumne meadows in the foreground," Rosekrans said of another valley restoration depiction.

One hundred years after Hetch Hetchy's creation, the dream lives on.

"It's a tremendous opportunity," Rosekrans said. "And it can be done without losing a drop of water."

For now, it remains one part of San Francisco's water supply - sitting on top of what could be one of the most ambitious restoration projects in human history.                  

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