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New Life for Hetch Hetchy

March 22, 2003

San Francisco, that self-proclaimed wellspring of environmental passion, is preparing to bottle some of its municipal water supply and market it as Hetch Hetchy Mountain Water. Shame. Hetch Hetchy may be as fresh and tasty as bottled water gets, but any good environmentalist with a sense of history would rather drink irrigation runoff.

Los Angeles still gets lashed for "stealing" the Sierra-sprung waters of the Owens Valley nearly a century ago. L.A. took it by stealth but at least paid the valley farmers for it. San Francisco blithely ignores that it stole outright, with the collusion of Congress and the White House, the waters of Yosemite National Park by damming the Tuolumne River in 1923 and inundating the Hetch Hetchy Valley to a depth of 300 feet. With its towering granite rocks and waterfalls, Hetch Hetchy was nearly the match of the incomparable Yosemite Valley to the south.

L.A. and San Francisco may be about as alike as Lew Wasserman and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, but they do have some common water ties. Part of the Owens River supply begins in the snowfields on one side of a ridge near Tioga Pass on Yosemite's eastern border. San Francisco's supply originates just a few feet west on the other side of the ridge. Also, the Tuolumne River water was first claimed by Joseph B. Lippincott, a key figure in the secret purchase of Owens Valley farm land. And there's no questioning the quality of the water. Both cities' water scores well in taste tests against pricey brands of bottled water, which is a story for another day.

San Franciscans are indignant whenever someone suggests that O'Shaughnessy Dam be dismantled and the Hetch Hetchy Valley restored to its natural state. When San Francisco proposed a $1.6-billion bond issue last year to rehabilitate its water system, environmentalists sought $600,000 to study the cost of taking out the dam and developing alternate storage. City officials refused.

San Francisco doesn't even use all its Hetch Hetchy water, instead marketing it to neighboring water districts. The city also makes a pretty penny from the hydroelectric power the Tuolumne system generates.

Los Angeles has given up -- grudgingly, of course -- much of its Owens water to restore Mono Lake and put water back in the Owens River Gorge. Someday, perhaps San Francisco will recognize that its pride in Hetch Hetchy is misplaced and that dismantling the dam is something that is really worth San Francisco's image of itself.

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