Thursday, August 03, 2006

Hetch Hetchy Hungama

Last week's spate of public debate about the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in California provides plenty of amusement as local politicians and activists posture themselves, bare their knuckles or shove their feet in their mouths.

For starters, Hetch Hetchy is the reservoir that is formed behind the O'Shaughnessy dam (in the US, dams have different names than the reservoirs they create) in the Yosemite National Park in California. It gains its notoriety from the fact that it was built in a valley thought to be nearly as beautiful as Yosemite valley, thereby submerging it forever from human sight. The plan for the dam was stiffly but unsuccessfully opposed by John Muir and others in the early 1900s, whose successors are fighting today to have the dam demolished.

The latest blast of hot air in the debate comes from a recently completed feasibility study for dam removal conducted byDWR (Dept of Water Resources, California), which found that removal and restoration can cost anything between $3 b and $10 b. In context, the controvertial proposed Auburn dam is estimated to cost $1 b. There is much at stake in the dam (or its removal). Hetch Hetchy provides water and electricity to 2.4 million San Franciscoans for whom it is dear, but its survival is also a symbolic lifeline for those like Congressman John Dolittle who are pushing for new dams. On the other hand, restoration of the Hetch Hetchy is the wet-dream of every conservationist in this state and beyond.

Both pro- and anti-removal sides have claimed victory from the findings of the report. Conservationists say that the report indicates that removal is practically possible, the only question is when. Those who want the dam standing are laughing at the cost, saying its practically impossible to raise that kind of money given California's otherwise "crumbling infrastructure".

I wasnt as surprised to hear Representative Richard Pombo (Republican) calling the idea as having "comedic value" as I was to hear Congresswoman Dianne Feinstein (Democrat), who has substantial credentials supporting environmental legislation, write off the report saying removing Hetch Hetchy will make the state vulnerable to blackout (O'Shaughnessy provides 400 of the 60,000 MW California generates). Turns out that Feinstein is an ex-mayor of San Francisco. I havent heard a single politician support it except the Assemblywoman who motivated the study.

Local newspaper editorials in northern California unanimously shut out the idea but support for the pro-removal lobby came from unexpected quarters - LA Times. The Times calls Feinstein's statements baloney and says the dam is Hetch Hetchy valley's shame and has to go. After all, the pinkies in San Francisco have forever pointed accusing fingers at Los Angeles for "stealing" water from Owens Valley (further reading: Cadillac Desert). Now LA is getting back!

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