Appeals Court Rejects Effort to Drain Yosemite Reservoir

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, in the northwestern sector of Yosemite National Park. (King of Hearts/Wikipedia)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A conservation group can’t force San Francisco and other cities to stop taking water from a glacial reservoir in Yosemite National Park that serves 2.6 million Bay Area residents, a state appeals court ruled Monday.

San Francisco-based nonprofit Restore Hetch Hetchy sued the city in 2015, claiming the operation of a 95-year-old dam and reservoir on the Tuolumne River violates state laws that forbid using “unreasonable methods” to divert water.

In an unpublished opinion issued Monday, the Fresno-based Fifth Appellate District found that because the creation of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir was authorized by an act of Congress, the Raker Act, in 1913, the cities’ right to manage the water resource pre-empts state law.

“Congress’s relevant intent, as readily discerned from the text of the Raker Act, was to flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley through the permanent creation of a dam on federal lands,” Presiding Justice Brad Hill wrote for the three-judge panel.

Spreck Rosekrans, executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy, said his organization was disappointed with the ruling and plans to appeal to the California Supreme Court.

“We hope they’re more sensitive to the nuances and separation between states’ rights and federal pre-emption,” Rosekrans said of state supreme court.

Restore Hetch Hetchy claims San Francisco’s continued reliance on the manmade lake in Yosemite is unreasonable because it can divert water from other dams along the Tuolumne River, which also feeds into the Don Pedro Reservoir and San Joaquin River.

The environmentalists want the dam dismantled, the valley drained of water, and the land restored to the way it was more than 100 years ago.

“This was the one time in American history that we’ve allowed such destruction in any of our national parks,” Rosekrans said. “It can be restored without San Francisco losing a drop of water supply.”

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera applauded the appeals court’s ruling, saying the Bay Area needs the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir to supply water for millions of residents.

“The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir has played a crucial role in supplying water to San Francisco and the surrounding area for more than 100 years,” Herrera said in a statement. “Draining it is a terrible idea that would jeopardize the water needs of Bay Area families.”

The appeals court affirmed a 2016 ruling by Tuolumne County Superior Court Judge Kevin Seibert, finding the conservation group’s claims were pre-empted by federal law and barred by the statute of limitations.

Justices Charles Poochigian and Kathleen Meehan joined Hill on the panel.

The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir was created in 1923 with the completion of the O’Shaughnessy Dam, and began delivering water to San Francisco in 1934 through a 167-mile pipeline.

In 2016, a federal judge also dismissed a lawsuit claiming the operation of the dam and power project harms endangered species, including Chinook salmon, steelhead, green sturgeon and the delta smelt.


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