No more dam discussion

Pub date July 25, 2006
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL The state Department of Water Resources released a long-awaited study July 19 concluding that restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley would cost at least $3 billion and possibly as much as $10 billion.
Let us put this in perspective.
The state of California is facing extreme pressure on its electrical grid because of record high heat. If this is an early sign of rapid and dramatic climate change (and that’s a very possible scenario), then the problem is going to get worse before it gets better. Most electricity in this country is generated by burning fossil fuels, which contributes to global warming, which puts more pressure on the grid…. It’s getting so bad that some desperate environmentalists, flailing around for answers, are starting to argue that nuclear power might be an option.
Renewable energy? Gee, the experts say: It’s just not financially feasible right now.
And with some very scary problems looming, the state is actually talking about tearing down a hydroelectric dam that provides clean electricity for 200,000 homes — and spending $10 billion to do it.
This is insanity.
The O’Shaughnessey Dam, which holds back the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, flooded a spectacular Sierra valley, breaking the heart of conservationist John Muir. Even the San Francisco Chronicle, which supported the dam and attacked Muir about 100 years ago, now agrees that it was a mistake.
But there’s a lot more to the story. For starters, the compromise legislation that gave San Francisco the right to build the dam required the city to use it as the centerpiece of a public power system — a legal mandate that the city defies to this day. As long as the dam is generating power, it offers a huge opportunity for San Franciscans to get out from under the private power monopoly of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. And while hydroelectric dams have serious environmental problems, they don’t create greenhouse gases — and a dam that’s been around this long is actually a fairly ecologically sound way to generate power.
The price tag for wiping out the dam is staggering — and from a purely environmental perspective, spending that cash on this scheme would be a gigantic mistake. For $10 billion, California could undertake a huge crash program in developing renewable energy, spurring a lucrative industry that would create tens of thousands of jobs. With that kind of money behind it, solar power would not only be competitive, it would be cheaper than other forms of electricity. And the state would be leading the nation into a new era of safe, clean power.
Sure, in 50 years when solar, wind, and tidal power provide 90 percent of the state’s energy needs, and California has joined Nebraska in outlawing private electric utilities, and there’s money to burn … then restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley will be a fine idea. But for now it’s time to put this foolishness to rest. San Francisco — which, after all, owns the dam — should take the lead here. The supervisors should pass a resolution stating that the city will not consider any further proposals to tear down the dam — at least not until the city’s and nation’s energy policies have advanced a long way in a very different direction. SFBG