A century after the Raker Act, San Franciscans are still illegally denied public power

Pub date December 19, 2013
SectionPolitics Blog

The San Francisco Examiner has a good story on today’s 100th anniversary of the signing of the Raker Act, federal legislation that allowed San Francisco to build a dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley, a campaign championed most fervently at the time by the Examiner’s then-Publisher William Randolph Hearst.

The article was a good roundup of issues related to the Raker Act, and it included ongoing efforts by the group Restore Hetch Hetchy to try to tear down the dam, but there was a key aspect of the Raker Act that the Examiner left out, one that has been championed by the Bay Guardian over the years.

The Raker Act specifically called for San Francisco to directly distribute the water and electricity generated by the O’Shaughnessy Dam to its residents and for their benefit. The city does so with the water, through the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, but Pacific Gas & Electric used its power and connections to take control of the electricity and keep it, corrupting the political system for nearly a century in the process.

“The result: San Francisco has paid through the nose to PG&E for its power and the city loses about $30 million a year in profits it would get from a public system,” journalist J.B. Neilands wrote in the March 27, 1969 issue of the Bay Guardian, the first of dozens of stories we’ve written on the topic, spanning many unsuccessful public power campaigns, each one dominated by millions of dollars in PG&E spending.

Section 6 of the Raker Act says that the city “is prohibited from ever selling or letting to any corporation or individual, except a municipality or municipal water district or irrigation district, the right to sell or sublet the water or the electric energy” generated by the dam.

That long-standing violation could become an issue that threatens San Francisco’s control over its main source of clean water and power if Save  Hetch Hetchy gains traction in the courts with a lawsuit that it is pledging to file.

While PG&E doesn’t wield the same strong influence that it once did at City Hall, thanks partly to years of aggressive overreach that soured many local officials on the powerful utility, it does still retain close ties to former Mayor Willie Brown (an attorney who has been on retainer with PG&E for years) and current Mayor Ed Lee, who has sabotaged the latest half-step toward public power, CleanPowerSF.