Hearst hearts reservoir, highlighting Californian water spat

By John Upton

Hike away from a reservoir, and something interesting happens. As you walk away from the dam wall, or from any other part of the reservoir’s shore, the sound of chirping birds and buzzing insects often grows louder.

Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park, flooded with water supplies / John Upton

Despite resembling lakes, reservoirs are sterile environments bereft of wildlife. The visually stunning waterbodies are virtual dead zones because their water laps at steep cliffs that restrict shoreline habitat.

Shoreline habitat is a critical environment for birds, young fish and aquatic plants – not to mention the insects and other tiny creatures that more charismatic fauna feast upon. Remove gently sloping shorelines from an ecosystem and you remove much of its wildlife.

The most dramatic example I have experienced is in Yosemite National Park, where San Francisco dammed Hetch Hetchy Valley in the 1930s to create a drinking water reservoir.

The protected, pristine wild lands that surround the flooded meadow and forest environments create an extraordinary contrast: Birds and butterflies are virtually absent around the flooded valley; walk less than a mile in the right direction from the water’s edge and the din of insects and birds becomes aurally dazzling.

Drive away from a reservoir, and something else interesting happens. As you travel farther from the communities that are directly affected by drowned wild land, cheers of support for the presence of the reservoir often grow louder.

A dramatic example of this is playing out in the debate over Hetch Hetchy Valley’s future. San Francisco voters will decide in November whether the city’s water agency will overhaul its water management practices, expand some reservoirs and draw on new sources of recycled water and local groundwater and rainwater. All with the goal of eventually draining and restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley without jeopardizing Bay Area water supplies.

Near Yosemite in Sacramento, the Bee, the city’s hometown newspaper, has long championed efforts to drain the reservoir and restore the habitat into a wilderness mecca for wildlife and visitors. Although Hetch Hetchy is in Sacramento’s backyard, the city and its residents enjoy no real benefits from it.

Less than 100 miles from Sacramento, the Chronicle, one of San Francisco’s hometown newspapers, takes a different stance. Its editorials lambast the ballot initiative, describing it as “insane.” Its views reflect those of local elected officials and Bay Area business groups, most of whom see the reservoir as an indispensable source of snowmelt and cheap hydropower and, consequently, political power for the influential region.

The Chronicle’s owner, Heart Corp., doesn’t just editorialize. The publishing company in late June donated $2,500 to one of the political campaigns that aims to prevent the November ballot measure from passing. The donation, made to Citizens for Reliable Water and a Healthy Environment, came from the corporation’s San Francisco-based land management division.

That’s not a lot of money in the scheme of things, particularly given that ballot measure opponents have already raised more than $150,000 for their fight (supporters have raised more than $100,000, filings show, although I’m told that figure was recently doubled with a single donation), and it’s certainly unlikely to sway the election result. But the donation, combined with the dueling editorials, helps to illustrate how dramatically things can change as you get farther from a reservoir.

Update: The 2012 ballot measure failed, with 73 percent of San Francisco voters rejecting it.