Surprise: The bill for a water grab in California may be coming due


Water in the West has never made sense, thanks to states drawn with straight lines and watersheds that won’t stay put. Then there’s California, where hydrology and demography rebound off each other In opposite directions. Two-thirds of the people live in the south, while two-thirds of the surface water is in the north. This mismatch between nature and culture has made the south dependent on water imports, and to some, this is evidence of Southern California’s parasitic self-indulgence.

Yet northern cities have no reason to be smug, since many of them are water thieves themselves. Two years after Los Angeles had colonized the Owens Valley and begun its desertification, San Francisco performed an even more brazen act of hydrological abduction: It built a dam inside a national park and transformed one of the most scenic valleys in California into a giant bathtub.

Yet these same northern cities reacted with self-righteous indignation when the Bush administration recently proposed that residents of San Francisco and other Bay Area communities pay more — a lot more — for the right to exploit a national treasure.

The water impounded in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir makes its way through a 156-mile-long aqueduct to the San Francisco peninsula, which is no more capable than the Los Angeles plain of providing sufficient water for the metropolis that sprouted upon it. Yet San Francisco has avoided infamy for its act of piracy, unlike Los Angeles, which at least paid for the water it took from farms and ranches lying at the eastern foot of the Sierra Nevada,

San Francisco didn’t pay much for drowning Hetch Hetchy Valley and sucking the water of the Tuolumne River halfway across the state — and that's the point of a startling proposal in President Bush's budget.

Under the 1913 act of Congress that authorized San Francisco's violation of Yosemite National Park, the city was to pay the federal government $5,000 a year for the right to create a reservoir on public land. In the 1920s, that increased to $30,000, which is still all that the city pays. The Bush budget would ramp up that rent to $8 million annually and dedicate the proceeds to Yosemite programs.

The city can afford it, for here’s the real revelation: Hetch Hetchy and its dam are more than a water and power supply for San Francisco; they are a giant cash register. The city sells surplus water and electricity from the system to other Northern California communities, reaping a handsome profit.

Between 1979 and 2001, according to an investigation by the San Francisco Chronicle, the city funneled $670 million from Hetch Hetchy water and sales into its general fund.

Generations of San Francisco politicians have, in fact, become so addicted to the cash flow from Hetch Hetchy water and power that they have failed to follow even a modestly prudent program of reinvesting those profits in the aging system itself. The city had to beg voters to approve a $1.6 billion bond measure in 2002 to repair and upgrade the decrepit water system; suburban customers got stuck with a $2 billion bill for their share of the work.

Still, civic leaders have reacted to the president's budget proposal with astonished outrage. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a former mayor of San Francisco, deplored it as "a raid on city coffers." The Chronicle, which two years ago exposed the city's long financial neglect of the water system, displayed a loss of objectivity by headlining its story on the rent increase, "Bush budget soaks S.F. for Hetch Hetchy." The city’s Public Utilities Commission spluttered indignantly that it already gives Yosemite $1.7 million a year.

Yes, but that money is spent entirely on ranger patrols and other security efforts intended to keep the public — which owns Yosemite National Park — away from the reservoir and to protect the purity of the water so San Francisco does not have to filter it. You cannot touch the water in Hetch Hetchy, and you cannot enter that part of your national park at night.

What's a fair price to put on San Francisco's commercial exploitation of a priceless national treasure? That’s difficult to say. But it's even more difficult to believe that $30,000 a year even comes close.

John Krist is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( He is a columnist for the Ventura County Star in California.

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