Restore Hetch Hetchy is pretty much a single issue organization. Our mission is simply:
"to return the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park to its natural splendor ─ while continuing to meet the water and power needs of all communities that depend on the Tuolumne River."
Sometimes, however, we find we can't ignore the challenges that some communities face to obtain adequate water service. Most California cities are well served by their agencies, but there are a few unfortunate exceptions where improvements are badly needed.
As we protect and restore our most spectacular natural landscapes, it is essential that we ensure that all communities receive reliable supplies of high quality water. East Palo Alto and East Porterville are examples of cities in need of improved water service.
East Palo Alto
As I reported last July and again in August, East Palo Alto has been unable to build even its own affordable housing project because it is already using the maximum allocation provided by its supplier, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
East Palo Alto's "allocation" is inordinately low for historical reasons, some of which are related to its fairly recent (1983) incorporation as a city. East Palo Alto is among the most frugal of water users on a per capita basis among San Francisco's wholesale customers. Per capita income in East Palo Alto is only about $17,000 - the lowest of any city in the area..
Neighboring cities are offering to help. Mountain View does not use its entire allocation, and is offering to sell the right to buy one million gallons per day from San Francisco for a one time fee of $5,000,000.
The proposed deal may well go through and provide East Palo Alto with the water it needs. But it begs the question of why East Palo Alto must pay extra for that water, especially since per capita income in Mountain View is $47,000 - nearly three times as high. (Just to be clear, all of San Francisco's wholesale customers pay the same rate - about 6/10 of a cent per gallon. But if it accepts Mountain View's offer, East Palo Alto will have to pay an extra $5,000,000.)
The cost is not insurmountable. But it seems wrongheaded. Like so many of our statewide water policies, San Francisco's allocation among its wholesale customers fails to adequately distinguish between public uses of water (basic human needs and environmental uses) and private uses (business and discretionary urban landscaping), with unfortunate results.
Bottom line: It's great that a solution seems to be on the horizon, but unfortunate that East Palo Alto will need to pay extra.
While the situation in East Palo Alto is a bit of an anomaly, the water quality challenges in East Porterville are all too common. Many communities, especially in the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys, suffer from long-term inappropriate or over-application of fertilizers and pesticides which has contaminated groundwater supplies.
People are often forced to buy bottled water to wash, cook and drink. It's a sad irony that towns in California's agricultural heartland, often populated by low-income farmworkers, do not have safe drinking water.
The solutions aren't simple. There is, as they say, no silver bullet. Sometimes, new wells need to be drilled. Sometimes supplies can be cleaned up. Sometimes, communities can connect to cleaner surface water systems.
These needed improvements cost money. In most cases, the polluters are either difficult to trace or long gone. The Community Water Center and others have successfully lobbied for public (State) funding to help these small towns.
In East Porterville, this funding has provided infrastructure improvements that allow residents in East Porterville to hook up to Porterville's water system. This is a success story, but more needs to be done.
In California, a semi-arid state with a population approaching 40 million, a world class agriculture economy, and a plethora of spectacular rivers and wetlands, it is unlikely we will ever entirely stop fighting over water.
The challenge at Hetch Hetchy, however, is not whether San Francisco continues to receive its Tuolumne River supply, but rather whether San Francisco will make the system improvements necessary to receive that supply without storing it in Yosemite National Park.
The City has shown no inclination of ending is occupation of Hetch Hetchy willingly, so we have sued, alleging San Francisco is violating the California Constitution. We look forward to the opportunity to compare the merits of restoration to its costs in a courtroom.
As we continue with our campaign to restore Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley without losing a drop of San Francisco's water supply, we also support efforts to provide East Palo Alto, East Porterville and all communities in California with the water that they need.