US interior secretary’s meeting with group in favor of Yosemite valley restoration met with puzzlement from experts
US interior secretary Ryan Zinke has prompted puzzlement by meeting with a group that seeks to dismantle a dam providing San Francisco’s water, as experts wonder whether he is taking the fringe proposal seriously or trolling the city.
Zinke’s Sunday discussion with Restore Hetch Hetchy concerned the dam at Hetch Hetchy reservoir in California’s Yosemite national park. Removing it would restore the valley, which was once so beautiful that the environmentalist John Muir called it “one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples”, to its natural state – and force San Francisco to figure out where else to store 90% of its water supply.
US interior secretary’s meeting with group in favor of Yosemite valley restoration met with puzzlement from experts.
Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of California, Davis who published an authoritative study on the topic, ventured that Zinke is “poking environmentalists in San Francisco in the eye”.
Liberals have attacked Zinke for his efforts to lease US public land to oil and gas interests, but the water supply in one of the most liberal cities in the United States rests on the destruction of public land that was, reportedly, more beautiful than Yosemite valley itself. This is a potentially confounding state of affairs for San Francisco residents protective of their water but used to championing environmental causes.
The reservoir, which lies in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, 167 miles (270 km) from San Francisco, has remained controversial since it was built in response to the 1906 earthquake that largely destroyed the city. The 300-foot-wide dam represents the only such reservoir inside an American national park, but it also provides water said to be among the highest quality in the nation to some 2.7 million people in the Bay Area.In comments to the Wall Street Journal, a Department of the Interior spokesperson said Zinke was interested in learning how restoring Hetch Hetchy might “contribute to the reliable operation” of federal agriculture-related water projects in California’s Central Valley. California wildfires partially shut down Yosemite at peak of tourist season.
Proponents of valley restoration have faced resistance from politicians, businesses interests and city residents for decades. In 1987, then-San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein—now a California senator—fought against one such proposal, telling the Los Angeles Times that the idea was “dumb, dumb, dumb”. In 2012, 77% of San Franciscans voted against funding exploratory studies for restoring Hetch Hetchy.
Shortly after his meeting with the group, Zinke tweeted, “Good meeting with Restore Hetch Hetchey. Taking a fresh look at different opportunities and options to restore public access and recreation to the valley”.
Adrian Covert, vice president of Public Policy for the Bay Area Council, a business interest group that has spoken out against dismantling the dam, is suspicious of Zinke’s motives and said he learned about the Yosemite meeting on the same day as the Trump administration proposaled stripping key components of the Endangered Species Act.
“Are we to take secretary Zinke at face value that he’s genuinely concerned about the environment in this instance and not concerned about endangered species?” he said. He sees the meeting as an easy way to build reputation, pointing out that other politicians have used Hetch Hetchy “to give a patina of environmental friendliness”.
Restore Hetch Hetchy executive director Spreck Rosekrans said Zinke “promised to look into it”. That would involve studying the valley’s potential for tourism and developing plans to ensure San Francisco is not affected. Lund, the University of California professor, has found this to be possible by storing the water downstream instead, but filtering the water supply and delivering it from its new location would be costly.
Rosekrans and his organization envision punching a hole in the dam, leaving it mostly intact to keep costs down, waiting for what’s known as the “bathtub” ring mark from the waterline to fade, and helping native vegetation and wildlife recolonize the valley over decades.