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San Francisco, like LA, needs to atone for its water sins
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Why is San Francisco privileged?

The City is the home of a number of environmental groups that file lawsuits at the drop of the hat dealing with water flows and fish. San Francisco is the biggest diverter that keeps water from reaching the Delta — ground zero in California’s never ending water wars.

If you doubt this, go take a hike at Hetch Hetchy. 

Not only is it the only dam ever built in a national park, but when water started flowing to San Francisco and Bay Area taps in 1934 it diverted water flow from the Delta by sending it into a pipe system 167 miles to San Francisco. The pipeline, which passes under Modesto, assures that not a drop serves the dual purpose of keeping fish alive and the Delta ecology thriving as well as meeting urban needs.

Contrast that with water that heads to Los Angeles from Shasta Dam and Oroville Reservoir. It flows through the Delta before being diverted in the California Aqueduct at the Tracy pumps.

San Francisco in reality has already built a tunnel to allow Tuolumne River water they use to bypass the Delta.

As a result, the Tuolumne watershed isn’t tapped for fish flows to meet court orders. The Fresno-based Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy and Reliability is suing the National Park Service. The federal court filing argues by the National Park Service continuing to allow San Francisco to operate Hetch Hetchy as they currently are is a violation of the Endangered Species Act.

That’s because the deal the Park Service made allows San Francisco to divert water out of the Tuolumne before it reaches the Delta diminishing water supplies for wildlife. It also impacts agricultural supplies since the state and federal government take agricultural water from other watersheds first to meet flow demands that litigation has put in place for Delta fish.

That, in a way, is a sin as equal if not greater than the original act of destroying John Muir’s beloved Hetch Hetchy Valley in exchange for San Francisco paying $30,000 a year to lease land that runs eight miles deep behind O’Shaughnessy Dam from the Park Service.

The Restore Hetch Hetchy group is suing as well as demanding the removal of the dam and the restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley.

From old photographs, Hetch Hetchy Valley was stunning.

That said I’ve be also met people who recalled what the Colorado River canyon looked like before it was flooded behind Hoover Dam. They were into desert canyons and thought it was the most beautiful thing they ever saw disappear under water. Environmentally speaking, replacing Hetch Hetchy water with more storage elsewhere would simply inundate someone else’s idea of stunning wilderness. Granted the flooding of a national park and whether San Francisco is violating the Raker Act that explicitly states water and power from Hetch Hetchy can’t be sold to private interests — they sell power to PG&E — are legitimate questions.

Removing O’Shaughnessy Dam besides being expensive is problematic. It would be the same as demanding Los Angeles Water & Power remove the dams they built in the Owens Valley based on the questionable manner in which they obtained water rights.

The damage is already done. And in both cases replacement water would require modifications to other watersheds.

But San Francisco should be required to atone for environmental damages that their water project has created just as Los Angeles was required to do so in the Owens Valley.

The diverting of water from the Owens River essentially drained Owens Lake creating an environmental nightmare complete with dust clouds that sometime reached 10,000 feet and interfered with air traffic at nearby China Lake Navy Base. It created what was once dubbed the worst air quality in the entire country.

And although LA holds all the water rights for what they divert with no one in a superior position, they were forced to mitigate the damage they created. It involved restoring wetlands and sending a small amount of water back into the lake.

San Francisco should be required to divert water after it goes down the Tuolumne River and into the Delta. Yes, treatment of the water to make it drinkable will be costly compared to the current high Sierra diversion.

Los Angeles has spent more than $1.3 billion helping to mitigate environmental damage their water diversion caused at Owens Lake.

A precedent has been set.

San Francisco needs to pay for its sins, so to speak, just like everyone else that diverts water in California.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.