Nature and Sustainability

- not always the same

Protecting nature and living sustainably are both environmental goals. Sometimes they are wholly compatible, but not always.  Hydropower is one of many areas where the two goals can come into conflict.

Some would say the environmental movement in the United States began in earnest when John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt advocated protection of great natural landscapes in the American west. Perhaps a seminal moment in sustainability took place in the 1960's when Rachel Carson published "Silent Spring" - a book documenting the damage caused by the widespread use of pesticides. In the 21st century, "environmentalism" is often more about sustainability than it is about nature.

This past week, scientists, politicians and advocates from around the world gathered in San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit. While it was described as an "environmental" event, the focus was primarily on climate change - i.e. sustainability.

Restore Hetch Hetchy is old school environmentalism. We are a "nature" organization - with a single goal of restoring "a grand landscape garden - one of Nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples" (John Muir). We are not addressing critical resources issues from a worldwide perspective, but we are committed to a solution which will replace the portion of San Francisco's hydropower that will be lost with solar power (as well make sure that not one drop of water supply is lost).  

So it was refreshing that Harrison Ford, in his speech at the Summit, clearly acknowledged the conflict that sometimes occurs between nature and sustainability and to remind the crowd that nature is important as well. "While you work on climate change, I beg of you don't forget nature.", he said.

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Harrison Ford atop the O'Shaughnessy Dam while filming "Discover Hetch Hetchy".

Back to hydropower. Fortunately, few climate advocates aggressively promote hydropower, even though it emits no carbon (some reservoirs do emit carbon). 

San Francisco, however, is always quick to promote the "clean" power generated at its three hydropower plants in the Tuolumne watershed. The City uses this to defend retaining a reservoir in Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley. (After restoration, all three plants will still be operational. Overall about 20% of generation will be lost and replaced with solar power.)

The State of California, recognizing that hydropower projects have environmental impacts, has defined large hydropower projects (over 30 megawatts) as not "renewable". Further, no one seems to complain about the loss of "clean" hydropower that will come when dams on the Klamath River are removed. And of course no one is proposing to put a steam turbine on Old Faithful in Yellowstone or a dam in the Grand Canyon. So it is not unreasonable to lose a relatively small amount of hydropower when Hetch Hetchy is restored.

Figure 1 below compares the relatively small amount of hydropower that would be lost when Hetchy Hetchy is restored with other recent changes to electricity production in California.

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For brief documentation, see Hetch Hetchy Valley Restoration and Hydropower in California.

But San Francisco continues to crow about its "clean" hydropower. Perhaps that's what General Manager Harlan Kelly meant when stated that restoring Hetch Hetchy would have major detrimental environmental consequences in the letter he sent us last  Monday. We can't really know for sure since he also declined to meet with us.

It is understandable that leaders in San Francisco are less likely than others to support restoration. Communities rarely change willingly when their pocketbook is affected. Claiming that restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park would have "major detrimental environmental consequences", however, is an egregious and self-serving falsehood.