Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Gay man helms Yosemite dam ballot fight


O'Shaughnessy Dam on the Tuolumne River in Hetch Hetchy Valley. (Photo: David Best)
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Standing in the verdant Tiltill Valley in Yosemite National Park Mike Marshall surveys the high country meadow in the Sierra and sees what could be.

"This is what Hetch Hetchy Valley used to look like," said Marshall during a backcountry camping trip last fall.

Marshall is the executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy, whose goal is to return the valley where San Francisco has stored its drinking water for nearly 100 years back to its natural state.

In an interview this week, Marshall compared the fight over the fate of the reservior, one that was first waged and lost in the early 1900s by the environmentalist John Muir, to the modern day campaign for marriage equality. A gay man, Marshall oversaw the losing battle in 2000 against Proposition 22, the statewide ballot measure that defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

"This particular environmental challenge is really interesting to me in the same way gay marriage was interesting to me over 10 years ago. The collateral benefit in winning marriage is that it creates a more equal society," said Marshall. "With the issue here the collateral benefit we would be getting the city of San Francisco is to realize we made a decision 100 years ago that we now understand had negative impacts. We would now be forward thinking enough to reform the system to accomplish what we need to deliver water and power to our residents and diminish the adverse impacts on our environment."

On Wednesday, February 29, the nonprofit group submitted a measure with San Francisco elections officials that, if placed on the ballot and passed by voters this fall, would force the city's Public Utilities Commission to drain the Hetch Hetchy reservior in the national park and store the water elsewhere.

According to the measure, a draft of which was shared with journalists Tuesday, it would also require sufficient water resources to increase salmon populations on the lower Tuolumne River, decrease polluted storm water runoff into the San Francisco Bay and allow for the Hetch Hetchy Valley to be returned to the National Park Service and restored as part of Yosemite National Park.

"As a public agency we can't comment or advocate in any way on a voter initiative," said SFPUC spokeswoman Alison Kastama. "At this time we are reviewing it to understand what the initiative is proposing and verify the various facts and make sure we understand them."

The city would have three years to come up with a plan on how to accomplish the measure's goals and in 2016 voters would then be asked to adopt a charter amendment that would implement the plan.

"All the studies that have been done on this have demonstrated that the water system can be reformed and brought up to 21st century standards and San Francisco can once again lead the way on sustainable practices, which it does on many issues but not when it comes to water," said Marshall.

Backers of the measure have until July 9 to collect 9,702 valid signatures of San Francisco registered voters to place it on the ballot this fall. Marshall said he plans to hire paid signature gatherers with the goal of submitting 14,000 names to city officials for approval.

"It doesn't impact San Francisco's water rights. It doesn't impact water quality," said Marshall. "It builds up our water supply by potentially increasing our local water resources."


Tampering in any way with the Hetch Hetchy system, which not only supplies water to numerous Bay Area cities but also powers San Francisco's municipal buildings and transit system, is almost universally opposed by most of the city's elected leadership and business interests.

In an interview in January with the Bay Area Reporter Mayor Ed Lee doubted city residents would adopt any initiative calling for the replacement of the reservoir.

"I think the people within the boundaries of San Francisco are, in my opinion, quite set on not giving that up. It is too big an asset for the city," said Lee.

This week the business-backed Bay Area Council denounced the ballot measure as an expensive boondoggle.

"This ill-conceived measure would wreak havoc on the Bay Area, degrading water quality for 2.5 million residents and thousands of businesses in San Francisco, San Mateo, Alameda, and Santa Clara counties, decimating our historic water rights, eliminating a vital source of clean power and dramatically increasing our carbon footprint, at a cost of $10 billion to ratepayers," stated Jim Wunderman, the council's president and CEO. "As we are experiencing one of the driest winters in recent memory, we should be exploring ways to improve our water infrastructure, not tear it down. "

The proposal to restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley has gained backing in recent months outside of the Bay Area. The editorial pages for the major daily newspapers in Sacramento and Los Angeles have called on Congress to hold hearings looking at the unique agreement that San Francisco has to store water in a national park.

It is the only city in the country able to do so, which was allowed due to Congress' passage of the Raker Act in 1913.

It has also led to some strange bedfellows in the water fight, something the Bay Area Council alluded to in its statement.

"This effort, led by Representative Dan Lungren (R-Sacramento) and Restore Hetch Hetchy, is a dangerous exercise and a bad idea," stated Wunderman.

In his interview with the B.A.R. Marshall acknowledged that, "Lungren is not a fan of the gay community." But he added he believes Lungren has gotten behind Restore Hetch Hetchy with the best intentions.

"Allying ourselves with him has not been easy. That said, this is an issue that requires federal intervention," said Marshall, noting that Lungren has been one of the few elected officials willing to call for federal hearings to look into the issue.

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