Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Tempers boil over
SF water supply measure


O'Shaughnessy Dam, built along the Tuolumne River in Hetch Hetchy Valley, is a key component of San Francisco's water delivery system. (Photo: Courtesy Restore Hetch Hetchy)
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The fight over whether San Francisco should continue to store the majority of its water supply in Yosemite National Park's Hetch Hetchy Valley is headed to a state courtroom this month.

The backers of the Water Conservation and Yosemite Restoration Initiative, designated Proposition F on San Francisco's fall ballot, accuse city officials of misleading voters about the measure's aim and focus. They are asking a Superior Court judge to re-write the question voters will be asked in November that the City Attorney's office submitted to the Department of Elections.

As currently written, the ballot question reads, "Shall the city prepare a two-phase plan that evaluates how to drain the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir so that it can be restored by the National Park Service and identifies replacement water and power resources?"

Leaders of Restore Hetch Hetchy, the group behind the measure, want the ballot question to be expanded to also talk about other issues such as water recycling, conservation, and decreasing polluted storm water discharge.

"The city attorney has selectively chosen to omit key elements of the plan from the ballot question," stated Mike Marshall, the Yosemite Restoration Campaign's director, in a press release announcing the legal challenge. "The initiative clearly states that there are three parts to this plan: water quality, water conservation and new sources of water and power. To omit two of the three is to misinform the voters."

Leaders of the effort to defeat Prop F are confident a judge will not want to override the city's ballot language. They are expected to be in court Tuesday, August 28.

"They are probably going to lose," PJ Johnston, a spokesman for the Save Hetch Hetchy, No on F campaign, told the Bay Area Reporter during an editorial board meeting this week.

If passed, Prop F will require San Francisco to spend $8 million to create a water conservation task force that will present a plan to voters in November 2016 for how to achieve the measure's goals for greater water conservation and restoration of the High Sierra valley that is now submerged under water behind the O'Shaughnessy Dam.

Both campaigns accuse the other of using deception to confuse voters. Johnston argued that the Yes on F camp purposely fails to mention the Hetch Hetchy reservoir on its mailers because doing so would cost it support.

The closest that the mailer comes to discussing draining the dam is a reference to "consolidating our nine reservoirs into eight."

"Voters should know what they are voting on. This campaign is deceptive," charged Johnston. "If it only called for water recycling and increased conservation, it wouldn't be a problem."

He later added that, instead, Prop F's backers have "come at us with a fake concept. It's a Trojan horse."

During a separate editorial board meeting with the B.A.R. Marshall also complained about the messages opponents of Prop F are using.

"There is a lot of misinformation already about it," said Marshall, executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy. "The question before voters only focuses on draining the reservoir and nothing else. It is misleading."


Century old fight

The fight over the city's water supply is a century old. Under a highly contentious law adopted in 1913 by Congress, known as the Raker Act, San Francisco officials won the right to construct a dam in the pristine valley following the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire.

Noted naturalist John Muir waged the unsuccessful fight against seeing what became known as the O'Shaughnessy Dam be built along the Tuolumne River. Environmentalists ever since have carried on the battle that Muir started so many years ago.

Both sides are bracing for a tough fight over Prop F. In a rare instance of political unity, the city's elected leaders universally oppose any plans to tamper with the city's water system.

Nevertheless, "it's been a challenge to get people to take it seriously," said Johnston.

The No on F campaign, which is being run by political consultant Ace Smith, has yet to launch a website, and as of the latest campaign finance reporting period, had raised more than $100,000. But it reported only having $21,000 in cash on hand.

"It is tough to raise money in a presidential election year," said Johnston.

On the other side a number of environmental groups are backing Prop F. They include the National Parks Conservation Association, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Nevada Alliance, Foothill Conservancy, Forest Issues Group, Friends of the River, California Water Impact Network, EcoEquity, Endangered Species Coalition, and the Planning and Conservation League.

But missing from the list is the Sierra Club, which Muir founded. It has yet to endorse the ballot measure.

Marshall conceded the campaign is facing "a big fight" to pass Prop F. It has raised $200,000 so far, he said, with a goal of reaching $600,000 by November. According to its latest financial report, it had less than $20,000 in the bank.

"San Francisco is the only city to occupy a national park with a water storage facility. This is about our ability to absorb carbon and restore habitat," he said. "This initiative asks San Francisco to leap forward to the front of the line and do new things."


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