Activists take a new tack in attempt to restore a scenic valley in Yosemite
After years of frustration with the frontal assault, activists have shifted to a flanking maneuver to restore Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley. The group Restore Hetch Hetchy (RHH) says it will challenge the re-licensing of Don Pedro hydroelectric dam, downstream from Hetch Hetchy.
Often compared to Yosemite Valley in grandeur, Hetch Hetchy Valley has been flooded since the construction of O’Shaughnessy Dam in the 1920’s. Water from the reservoir serves the City and County of San Francisco but activists have long argued that it’s not needed, and that the Valley’s original attributes are more valuable.
Don Pedro is a dam and reservoir owned by the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts. Because it produces power, it’s subject to periodic license renewal by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The process to renew Don Pedro’s operating license, due to expire in 2016, is already underway.
Hetch Hetchy opponents will use provisions of federal environmental law to force a review of the interrelationship between Don Pedro and Hetch Hetchy, arguing that the two facilities are inseparable, and hence, as currently operated, Don Pedro contributes indirectly to environmental damage to Hetch Hetchy Valley.
Doug Wheeler, a Washington, DC-based attorney for RHH, says the National Environmental Quality Act wasn’t yet enacted in the 1960’s, when Don Pedro was first licensed. “It’s one of the fundamental prerequisites of NEPA that you look at the systemic effects of a project, including its direct, indirect and connected actions,” Wheeler told me by phone. “You can’t really assess the effects of these two projects without thinking of them as a whole and their impact on the entirety of this watershed.”
“Not true,” says Michael Carlin, Deputy General Manager of the San Francisco PUC. Carlin says there is “no physical connection between the two systems,” apart from the Tuolumne River itself, and that San Francisco has nothing to do with Don Pedro. Carlin also counters that Don Pedro was “scrutinized” in a 1985 environmental review under NEPA, and that FERC does not look upstream in its licensing reviews. “It’s where the project actually exists and its downstream effects on fish, wildlife and such,” said Carlin.
RHH says it’s submitting comments to FERC today that will, among other things, raise alternatives to damming Hetch Hetchy. According to a statement from the group:
“Other alternatives described in the comments include the enlargement of Don Pedro Reservoir, the expansion of regional groundwater storage, the diversion of water from the Cherry and Eleanor reservoirs into the San Francisco aqueduct and the construction of a diversion point for San Francisco along the lower Tuolumne River.”
Any proposals for additional surface storage or diversions of water are bound to meet with their own opposition. The federal re-licensing process for large hydroelectric dams typically takes years to complete.