Ryan Zinke Wants To Restore The Hetch Hetchy Valley. Why?

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Like virtually all of Donald Trump’s cabinet picks, Ryan Zinke is stunningly unqualified for his job as Interior Secretary. So far, his primary accomplishments have included picking an unknown company with three employees that just happens to be from his home town to repair the electrical grid in Puerto Rico and leasing every available square inch of federal lands he possibly can to oil and gas developers. He might better be described as a personal servant to the Koch Brothers.

Hetch Hetchy valley
Credit: Wikipedia

The Hetch Hetchy valley west of Yosemite National Park was once described by John Muir as “one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples.” But after the fire that destroyed San Francisco in 1906 — a fire that burned out of control partly due to a lack of water — the O’Shughnessy Dam dam was built across the Hetch Hetchy valley, creating a large reservoir. Today, San Francisco gets 90% of its drinking water from that reservoir 167 miles away. It also supplies a significant amount of hydroelectric power to the Bay Area.

Almost from the beginning, some people have advocating for tearing the dam down and restoring the Hetch Hetchy to is pristine beauty. While the idea has some aesthetic appeal, proponents have never specified a workable plan to replace San Francisco’s primary water source. Last week, Zinke stunned people in the Bay Area with this tweet.

And what would San Francisco do for water if the dam were dismantled? Zinke’s answer is the equivalent of “I’m sure we’ll think of something.” That puts all those cheese-eating, wine-swilling liberals in San Francisco into a deliciously diabolical bind. On the one hand, they are passionately committed to environmental causes. On the other hand, they like to be able to flush their toilets.

A spokesperson for the Interior Department assures the Wall Street Journal that Zinke was only interested in learning how restoring the Hetch Hetchy valley might “contribute to the reliable operation” of federal agriculture-related water projects in California’s Central Valley. Restore Hetch Hetchy executive director Spreck Rosekrans tells The Guardian Zinke “promised to look into” the Restore Hetch Hetchy proposal.

Rosekrans says his organization’s plan is to punch a hole in the dam to let the water run out because leaving it mostly intact would reduce costs. Then over the ensuing decades, the “bathtub ring” left behind by the water that was in the valley for the past century or so would begin to fade as native vegetation and wildlife recolonize the area. Rosekrans conveniently fails to address how the sight of a partially demolished dam will improve the aesthetics of the area.

Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis has done an extensive study of the Restore Hetch Hetchy plan. He says it might be possible to store water downstream of the existing dam, but filtering the water supply and delivering it from its new location would be costly. He thinks Zinke is “poking environmentalists in San Francisco in the eye” with his tweet.

Adrian Covert, vice president of Public Policy for the Bay Area Council, a business interest group that has spoken out against dismantling the dam, is suspicious of Zinke’s motives. He says he first learned about the Yosemite meeting on the same day as the Trump administration proposed eviscerating the Endangered Species Act. “Are we to take secretary Zinke at face value that he’s genuinely concerned about the environment in this instance and not concerned about endangered species?” he asks.

And that’s the key question, isn’t it? Given Zinke’s love of opening federally protected lands for oil and gas exploration and this administration’s penchant for pursuing naked self interest, is it possible Zinke is clearing out the Hetch Hetchy not to restore it to its native beauty but to make it available for his oil and gas buddies? Nah, one of Donald Trump’s minions would never throw the people of America under the bus for private gain — would he? What do you think?

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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