By Dennis Herrera
[Originally published in the Aug. 17-23, 2005 edition of the San Francisco Bay Guardian.]
IN A RECENT guest editorial for the San Francisco Chronicle, John Garamendi, a potential candidate for lieutenant governor, endorsed a plan to drain Hetch Hetchy Reservoir for the purpose of restoring the granite valley to what it was nearly a century ago. Garamendi’s endorsement aims to add heft to what had been a lightly regarded proposal and to elevate the profile of a seemingly appealing, frightfully bad idea to one worthy of consideration by California voters and policy makers.

It isn’t.

Before the so-called “restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley” takes hold as a statewide environmental juggernaut, the Bay Area progressive and environmentalist communities must give voice to some practical truths marking the bright line between a quaint conservationist notion and the very real imperatives of environmental justice.

Over the last several years, San Francisco city officials, working with community advocates, have made serious strides toward shutting down the polluting fossil-fueled power plants in Hunters Point and Potrero Hill, which many residents of the surrounding neighborhoods blame for suspiciously high rates of asthma and similar respiratory afflictions. Working closely with Sup. Sophie Maxwell and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission general manager Susan Leal, the city attorney’s office has undertaken a number of actions to reduce the impact of electricity generation on human health and our environment:

  • We successfully opposed efforts by Mirant Corp. to construct Potrero Unit Seven, a proposed 540-megawatt power plant that would have more than doubled existing fossil-fuel generation and earned dubious honors as the largest fossil-fueled power plant of any urban center in California. Had we failed, the new pollution-belching facility would have been authorized to operate for 30 years or more.
  • We sued Mirant for violating the Clean Air Act by operating its three combustion turbine generators at its Potrero site in excess of permit limits, emitting air pollutants and particulates that most directly affect residents in the adjacent neighborhoods of Bay View and Hunters Point.
  • We challenged the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s reauthorization of air permits for the Hunters Point power plant, winning an important agreement to let the permit expire when state regulators no longer needed it for electric reliability. We also convinced Mirant to retire credits equal to some 200 tons of nitrous oxide pollution in a challenge to an air district decision.

The loss of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir would fly in the face of every effort San Francisco has made to replace fossil-fuel power generation with renewable energy sources. Moreover, it would represent a needless setback in our efforts to shutter existing polluting facilities. We need more publicly owned renewable resources to win this battle, not fewer.

To the extent San Francisco has made progress toward closing polluting power sources, it has been due in large measure to our ability to replace them with transmission, renewables, and cleaner fossil-fuel generation capacity. Hetch Hetchy Reservoir produces 200 megawatts of clean, low-cost hydropower, which provides electricity to run San Francisco’s entire Muni system as well as city government facilities from City Hall to SFO.

Losing 200 megawatts of municipally owned hydropower would force greater dependence on fossil-fuel electricity and impair low-cost hydropower with higher-cost renewables, making San Francisco’s efforts to create a sustainable energy future virtually impractical. And it would devastate our efforts to enact a public power system in San Francisco. Hetch Hetchy was built by people who envisioned a public power system to serve all of San Francisco. We should finish that system before we start tearing it down.

The conservation of our natural resources is never an unworthy aim, and the restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley may well be a worthwhile endeavor for succeeding Californians in generations to come. But here and now, let us not make conservation the enemy of environmental justice.

Dennis Herrera is the city attorney of San Francisco.