Agriculture

Ruling snags push for Hetch Hetchy restoration

A historic photo shows what the Hetch Hetchy Valley looked like before 1913. The valley went under 300 feet of water after the 1923 completion of the dam, which had been bitterly fought by John Muir and his allies. They compared its splendor to Yosemite Valley on the Merced River.
A historic photo shows what the Hetch Hetchy Valley looked like before 1913. The valley went under 300 feet of water after the 1923 completion of the dam, which had been bitterly fought by John Muir and his allies. They compared its splendor to Yosemite Valley on the Merced River. Bancroft Library

The group trying to erase Hetch Hetchy Reservoir from Yosemite National Park has lost a round in court.

Judge Kevin Seibert, ruling in Tuolumne Superior Court, rejected a claim that the 93-year-old reservoir violates a state mandate that water diversions be “reasonable.”

Thursday’s decision was cheered by officials in San Francisco, which supplies about 2.6 million Bay Area residents from the Tuolumne River impoundment and other storage. And it was welcomed by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, which balk at the suggestion that their Don Pedro Reservoir could help make up for the loss of Hetch Hetchy.

“Draining Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is a terrible idea that an overwhelming majority of San Francisco voters rejected in 2012,” City Attorney Dennis Herrera said in a news release. Only 23 percent of voters supported the measure, which would have ordered city officials to create a plan for replacing the lost storage and hydropower.

The plaintiff, an Oakland-based group called Restore Hetch Hetchy, plans to appeal the ruling.

Draining Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is a terrible idea that an overwhelming majority of San Francisco voters rejected in 2012.

Dennis Herrera, city attorney for San Francisco

Hetch Hetchy Valley went under 300 feet of water after the 1923 completion of the dam, which had been bitterly fought by John Muir and his allies. They compared its splendor to Yosemite Valley on the Merced River.

“It is ironic that this decision comes on the centennial of the National Park Service Act, legislation that was inspired by nationwide regret over the flooding and destruction of the Hetch Hetchy Valley,” RHH Executive Director Spreck Rosekrans said in a release.

The lawsuit cited a part of the California Constitution, added in 1928, that requires reasonable water uses. Seibert ruled that state law was pre-empted by the federal Raker Act of 1913, which allowed Hetch Hetchy to be built inside Yosemite. He also said the lawsuit came long after the statute of limitations had expired.

It is ironic that this decision comes on the centennial of the National Park Service Act, legislation that was inspired by nationwide regret over the flooding and destruction of the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Spreck Rosekrans, Restore Hetch Hetchy executive director

Restore Hetch Hetchy had asked the judge to order San Francisco to prepare engineering and financing plans for replacing the lost storage. The group proposes water conservation, recycling, use of groundwater and reworking of other reservoirs on the Tuolumne and in the Bay Area. It envisions the valley recovering its grandeur in the years after the dam is knocked out.

The irrigation districts sided with San Francisco in the case. They said Don Pedro, downstream of the city diversion, does not have room to spare.

“It makes no sense to MID and TID to reduce water storage capacity in a water-short state or reduce the amount of clean, affordable energy available in California,” MID spokeswoman Melissa Williams said.

John Holland: 209-578-2385

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