html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: I don't even like Yosemite that much. Too crowded.

Friday, July 28, 2006

I don't even like Yosemite that much. Too crowded.

I suppose I should weigh-in on Hetch Hetchy, since all the cool people are talking about it and I just know all y’all are looking to me for an authoritative answer. (Or, alternately, y’all haven’t even heard of Hetch Hetchy, can instantly form an opinion from a quick summary of the issues, and would prefer that I tell you again about my breasts. Hetch Hetchy, then.)

Hetch Hetchy is the name of the valley containing the primary reservoir holding San Francisco’s water supply. It collects very pure snowmelt from the Mokelumne Tuolumne River; it was built after Congressman Raker passed a bill in 1913 allowing O’Shaughnessy Dam to be built in a new national park. It also provides 20% of SF’s electricity through hydropower. Hetch Hetchy Valley was said to be unbelievably beautiful; it is constantly compared to Yosemite. Some say that losing the fight to save Hetch Hetchy killed John Muir.

My professor at UC Davis used his integrated engineering/economic model of California’s inter-tied water system to show that there is enough capacity downstream of Hetch Hetchy that the dam could be removed or opened without costing SF any drinking water. (He offered me a chance to do that study and I turned it down. I’m still good with that decision. It would have been pretty glamorous to be the Hetch Hetchy girl, but it is no Los Osos.) My department just issued a report saying that it would cost $3B - $10B to remove the dam and restore the Valley. There are governance issues with the irrigation districts who own the dams downstream where SF would have to store water. Still, it seems clear that if we really wanted to, we could have Hetch Hetchy Valley back again.

I’ve watched hearings on Hetch Hetchy and read news stories and executive summaries of the reports about it. I haven’t seen an argument that wasn’t either “It was really beautiful” or “It would cost so much”. I think that is pretty much it.

I come down on the “really beautiful” side, of course. State money, even with big numbers, all seems imaginary to me. It doesn’t seem likely that the state will spend $3B - $10B in ways that will improve my quality of life more than knowing that Hetch Hetchy was restored. But that isn't based on an intellectual argument; that comes from my core values. I believe that damming beautiful valleys (and other large scale manipulations of the environment for human benefit) is wrong. I would love for us to be a people that spent a lot of money to fix what we did wrong.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a little surprised by the notion that you, of all people, call these numbers imaginary.

I don't know where I come down on this yet, but I certainly think the scale of the cost matters. If the $10 billion was $500 million or $50 billion, that would matter, right?

This was the issue with the recent stem cell proposition that passed: people supported stem cell research, and so voted for it. The proponents could have gone with a reasonable number, something in the hundreds of millions, but since they knew that innumeracy was rampant, they said what the hell, and made the figure into the billions. There's a diminishing return, and a opportunity cost...

Not that I don't support Hetch Hetchy. But I hope that those that do support this also support the affordable housing bond that is lacking support in the polls this morning, and support the increased taxes to do it.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Dubin said...

Wait, but it's already there and working. I'd rather spend money preventing other such developments that aren't already "water under the bridge" (heh, heh). Think of how much embodied energy there is in the dam structure itself... it's not a very environment solution to liberate that energy just for beauty's sake. So sez me.

12:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This coming from someone who seems to prefer life in a city?

Isn't every city a pretty large scale manipulation of the environment for human benefit?

And, organic farming for that matter. Aren't their yeilds considerably lower than farms growing genetically altered foods using pesticides and whatnot? Wouldn't that then require more land being converted from its natural state to farm land to feed the same size population?

And, what about the ecosystems that have likely sprung up around the edges of the reservoir? What would become of them if you took the dam away?

And, what about the hydro electric power? Are people willing to trade these kinds of dams for nuclear plants?

I'm not really an environmentalist, so I don't really know what it is you're trying to accomplish, and at what cost?


12:36 PM  
Anonymous ed said...

3 to 10 billion is a LOT of money that could be probably be spent a LOT more efficiently elsewhere around the state (for example, Meg, increasing your salary or mine or perhaps more altruistically, restoring services that have been cut back over time).

Realistically, the Hetch Hetchy battle was lost in 1913, and I think it is a bit idealistic to think that by tearing down the dam we can turn back the clock.

Additionally, although I know you'd prefer that it not be so, California continues to grow in population, and the state's water and power needs are going to increase rather than decrease. So even if the models say that our current needs can be satisfied without that dam, our *current* needs will never be a static figure.

That being said, would I have liked to see the Hetch Hetchy without a dam? Sure. But I'd also like have seen Lake Tahoe before it was developed, the San Fernando Valley back when it was really still agricultural and L.A. when the original red cars were still operating. But too bad. We should be marshalling our resources behind trying to save the things that we still have rather than tilting at windmills to try to change history.

1:03 PM  
Anonymous justus said...

I notice in the report they list the sedimentation levels for the dam as "Unknown (Minimal)". I'm having a hard time how those two words can go together. There is also no citation that I can see for the sedimentation levels on that particular dam. How can you estimate the costs of removing the dam if you don't even know how much sediment you have to remove? (The 1998 NPS study assumed no sedimentary amelioration would be necessary when the dam is demolished.)

They also note it would be largest dam removal in US history as well as the largest meadow restoration in US history. That introduces a large measure of uncertainty into their estimates. (Or, rather, certainty of budget overruns.)

They also mention that they would likely need to get permission from the native Indians tribes to demolish the dam.

As for the "really beautiful" side of the argument...currently Hetchy Hetch is protected by its wildness designation. Only 100 cars a day and all recreation is passive in nature? Once the reservoir is gone how long will take for the rezoning to allow ATVs and RVs and development to put in more and more paved roads and parking lots for vacationers?

1:28 PM  
Anonymous margie said...

I don't think that supporting the removal of Hetch Hetchy is necessarily an environmentalist stance. Like Megan said, the arguments basically come down to aesthetics vs. cost. Megan is on the aesthetics side and I'm on the cost side. I'd rather see the government's limited resources spent on recovery of endangered species. And yes, I do think the government's resources should be limited.

1:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And, what about the hydro electric power? Are people willing to trade these kinds of dams for nuclear plants?

I hope they would but until the environmental movement gets its head out of its ass with regards to nuclear power I don't think it will happen.

More than Hetch Hetchy I'd rather see Glen Canyon restored.

1:48 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Hey Justus,

Glad you're back. I haven't seen you in a while. I'm willing to believe sediment behind the dam is minimal. The dam captures snowmelt off of granite outcroppings and is close to the source; picking up no sediment is plausible to me. Water in the Friant-Kern canal, also snowmelt over granite, is so sediment starved that it is sucking the cement from the canal floor, leaving the cobble behind.

1:55 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I agree! Glenn Canyon first!

1:57 PM  
Anonymous nuclearpoet said...

I would comment more meaningfully, but I'm too fascinated by the names of stuff over there on the other side of the county... Hetch Hetchy, Los Osos? Is there some unspoken rule to try to repeat syllables as often as possible in names for places?

2:04 PM  
Anonymous david said...

Is it reasonable to assume that a newly-drained Hetch Hetchy would be as pretty as its past?

2:21 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Newly drained? No. You can see some ugly looking bathrub ring in the top picture. But in our lifetimes it would probably be very pretty again. In millenia, it would look unscarred.

Hetch Hetchy - Miwok name for a local grass.
Los Osos - Spanish word for bears.

2:26 PM  
Anonymous justus said...

Is it reasonable to assume that a newly-drained Hetch Hetchy would be as pretty as its past?

Not really. The 1998 NPS study says it will take 150 years to return to its pre-dam state.

Don't forget that to drain the dam they would need to build a lot of infrastructure that would then also need to be removed. With the delays of so many other government projects, I can easily imagine that process taking several years post-drain.

I'm not doubting the assessment on sediment, I just found it strange that they had citations for the sediment levels of the comp dams but not for O'Shaughnessy.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Pandax said...

I don't claim to be well versed on this subject, but my quick assessment is this. The dam is still in good shape. I could understand having this debate if there were major repairs needed.

I go to Yosemite every year and love being out there. While I would love to see restoration of Hetch Hetchy, I think for now, the costs don't justify the plan. But certainly, it's healthy to debate and to prepare for the need if and when the appropriate time arrives.

2:34 PM  
Anonymous ed said...

"In millenia, it would look unscarred."

Won't everything look unscarred in millenia, after us pesky humans are gone?

2:36 PM  
Blogger Dubin said...

Am I think only one who thinks it very pretty now? I like that picture you posted.

3:17 PM  
Anonymous UnderwearNinja said...

Yosemite is one of the greatest places on this earth. Even when it's crowded by all the people walking the valley floor, if you know your way around, you can escape the majority and be alone enough for heavy makeouts in less than 30 minutes. If you want to spend 45, you could probably get naked.

The air there tastes like the most delicious caramel you've ever put to your lips, and it always smells like wildflowers.

The rocks loom above you in defiance of time and remind you of times no one but the brave could ever see this land.

I love the internet with the heat of a thousand volcanos, but I'll give it up for Yosemite if just one of those volcanos goes dormant.

So when someone tells me that there's a chance to go Doublemint gum style on Yosemite, my heart starts to flutter and my pulse is off to the races.

That said, there's not a lot of places in the world that are as wonderful as Yosemite, Hetch Hetchy was one of them. If we have a chance to create something wonderful, then we should do it, and something like the cost of two days in Iraq shouldn't stop us.

As for part of that 10 billion going to state workers, no offense but the state workers who actually work probably wouldn't see it anyway.

4:15 PM  
Anonymous nuclearpoet said...

Megan, thank you for the commentary on the origins of the place names.

I re-read your post and thought of some other stuff to say. For one, you say that the costs seem pretty imaginary and you can't think of a better way the money could be used to improve the quality of your life. How about, say, to find some qualified people to handle Los Oros. Or more work on Superfund sites. Or, well, plenty of other stuff.

I think that if money needs to be spent on repairs to the dams, then it would be a good time to re-evaluate the options. But if that money isn't significant, then... On the theme of "damn the dams built for human gain", I'm kind of curious about what you think about the damming that Tennessee Valley Authority did back in the days of the New Deal. There are plenty of dams that regulate the Tennessee River watershed now. TVA has done a lot of work to ensure that the river ecosystem is in good shape, and it is true that before the dams were built, the Tennessee/Alabama/Georgia area was much more flood-prone than it is now. And there's plenty of beauty in the foothills of the Smokies, I wonder if that would be true if the area was constantly flooding.

4:24 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

There are nicer pictures out there of the reservoir entirely full and reflecting the granite outcroppings. But the bathtub ring is ugly and the dam is nothing special. I think it would have been incredible as a meadow valley with the waterfalls at their full height.

You have nothing better to do than pick fights over my phrasing? If you're bored, you could start working on a new mix for my ipoD.

Nature makes you all sappy. Man. "State workers who actually work" - that wouldn't be me.

I don't know anything about the TVA, because that would be east of the Sierras. But if it is an ecosystem that used to flood frequently, it is probably missing that function now.

4:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember seeing something about the effects of the Hoover dam on the Colorado river, it apparently causes all of the sediment the river used to carry to settle out destroying little eco systems all along the river that were dependent on the new nutrient rich soil being carried in and replenished.


5:27 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I am wholly ignorant of the factors at work here, but I know how similar things work sometimes work out, so I ask you this:

What is the chance that it will actually cost 3-10x the original estimate and/or we will have to, in the near future, reverse the decision due to population growth/miscalculation/unpredictable precipitation/random occurances and/or there is some other huge unintended consequence that isn't being factored in at all?

6:13 PM  
Anonymous nuclearpoet said...

Megan, I can see your point. Personally, I think that Nature is much more powerful than us mere mortals... we do stuff, and Nature just comes right back and remakes her/himself. I'm a supporter of environmentalism and humans being respectful of nature, but at the same time, I strongly suspect that if humans screw things up badly (or at least worse than they are now), we're the ones who will suffer, and go the way of the dinosaurs. Then in a couple hundred millenia, some avian lifeform is gonna be digging up human fossils and wondering what happened to cause these weird mammal bipeds to disappear, and what these things labeled "iPod" are supposed to be for. Oh, yeah, and these avian lifeforms are still going to be trying to figure out what to do with all these roaches infiltrating their homes...

8:24 PM  
Blogger billo said...

Is there a "price" for beauty? Can we, should we, think of Nature purely in material terms? Of course, money could be spent elsewhere but then why spend on art as well? Why spend 350 billion on arms each year?

1:47 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

Leave it be. I wish I had a chance to see the Yangtze River before the dam or bought a drink at a bar in Monticello before the Lake Berryessa's glory hole was all that marked it's passing, but it's done. And done well enough. If all that there is to complain about a project of that magnitude is that it used to be a pretty valley, we got off easy (and I agree with Dubin. It's a pretty reservoir now). I don't trust the folks that decided to bury that valley (or their successors) to restore it, anyway. That project, leaving alone the cost overruns and delays, would be a disaster (a disaster in every way you can think of -- Los Osos would be Spanish for "great resource management").
If we're going to talk about the big picture (a millenia), it will be back to whereever it was headed when we got in the way anyway. And it won't even mind the interuption.

10:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The high-side numbers in the state report are based on the cost of building new surface dams containing several times the storage of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

The state's report is also very preliminary and sketchy. The cost of restoration can be minimized with creative thinking that uses the existing system more efficiently.

For example, the Cherry and Eleanor Reservoirs, which are also located in Yosemite Park or right outside of it, are part of San Francisco's Hetch Hetchy system. Those two reservoirs have current water storage (at least in regular rainfall years) almost equal to Hetch Hetchy. Yet, San Francisco does not use these reservoirs for municipal water -- but rather only for power generation and furnishing water to agricultural water districts. There are also ways to minimize the loss of energy generation. Another cost that can be avoided -- at least in the shorter run -- is that of dam removal. The reservoir can be drained, and the dam left in place.

This would be a national project, that would benefit the millions of visitors to Yosemite. The restoration project could be funded in part through a modest increase in the Yosemite visitor's fee -- which is still just $20 (compare that to Disneyland).

I am not convinced that this reservoir reduces greenhouse gases. Several square miles of carbon-dioxide fixing trees and plants were inundated to create the reservoir. And greenhouse gases are generated by the underwater breakdown of such plant matter. A restored valley, with oaks and aspens and grasses, would reduce CO2.

There are potentially large financial upsides to valley restoration. Yosemite Park is a major tourism draw for the state and the local Sierra communities. There are three to four million visitors every year to Yosemite Valley -- and maybe 50,000 to Hetch Hetchy. We have a chance to restore Hetch Hetchy in ways that enhance the Yosemite experience -- without car access or hotels.

California is blessed with a few awe-inspiring places - Yosemite Valley, Big Sur, the Golden Gate, Tahoe -- and Hetch Hetchy is one of those places. We ought to restore it because parks matter. They refresh our souls.

Mark P.

11:35 PM  

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