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Water Fight!

The idea of draining Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and restoring Yosemite Valley enters public discourse with seasonal regularity. But this November, the issue makes its first-ever appearance on the ballot. Voters will decide whether to go ahead with a feasibility study, and if the measure passes, they’ll vote again in 2016 on whether to actually turn the clock back on the once-verdant valley. Although the issue has seen odd alliances in the past (Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the interior joined forces with the Sierra Club), the coalitions of 2012, described below, are possibly the strangest yet.

p r o p o n e n t s:

The True Believer: As director of Restore Hetch Hetchy, Mike Marshall is the face of the movement, and he insists that we need a water system that’s diversified and less prone to disruption. “San Francisco imports 99 percent of its water, and 85 percent from one source, which has to cross two fault lines,” he says. He also explains that Hetch Hetchy water comes from the Tuolumne River, so if we get rid of the dam, we’ll still have access to the water.

The Tea Party Turncoat: Congressman Dan Lungren met his wife at Yosemite and says this is the first measure he’s worked on that his kids have taken an interest in. But some think he’s really trying to pull a Don Hodel. In the 1980s, the former interior secretary proposed restoring the valley, but San Francisco liberals had a knee-jerk reaction when their water supply was threatened and wound up taking an antienvironmental stance—and looking like hypocrites.

The Billionaire with a Conscience: Although he’s not the founder of Walmart (that’s his grandfather), Sam Rawlings Walton is one of the heirs to the Walton fortune, a fair amount of which he’s directed to Restore Hetch Hetchy. He’s a board member of the Environmental Defense Fund and a longtime river-rafting guide. Walton’s activism should put to rest conspiracy theories about Walmart planning a Yosemite Valley branch.

The Indiscriminate Hollywood Activist: With his long history of philanthropic activity, it’s not surprising to find Harrison Ford’s voiceover on the Restore Hetch Hetchy website. On the other hand, there are reportedly scads of mysterious Native American artifacts buried beneath the reservoir—could this be promotion for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull 2?

o p p o n e n t s:

The Senator Nursing a Grudge: Legendary for her high rhetoric on this issue, Dianne Feinstein once compared the lack of thought behind Hodel’s plan to the sale of arms to Ayatollah Khomeini. But her vehemence might have personal roots. She’s one of those liberals who were embarrassed when Hodel made a surprise public announcement reintroducing the issue in 1987—and she had to state her opposition to it on the spot.

The Embattled Mayor: Ed Lee has gone Feinstein one further, claiming that the “real goal” of Restore Hetch Hetchy is “to drain the Bay Area’s largest and most important source of drinking water and clean energy.” That’s a headscratcher of an accusation, but considering the year he’s had (see “Ed Lee’s Long Hot Summer,” page 40), it may be a necessary move to reassure voters that at least he’s not trying to disrupt their water supply.

The Water Pragmatist: Although the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission can’t officially take a position on ballot measures, its ex–general manager Susan Leal can. For Leal, it “boggles the mind” that anyone would dismantle an engineering marvel that surpasses the Golden Gate Bridge. And, in rebuttal to Marshall, she points out that if we take down the dam, Modesto and Turlock will be able to exercise their senior rights to the Tuolumne’s water.

The Muscle: The scions of Bay Area business, represented by the Bay Area Council, are firmly against the measure, especially the “super angel” startup investor Ron Conway, who donated $25,000 to the antirestoration campaign in June and has been talking it up ever since. “We may be known as risk takers when it comes to business,” he says, “but this ballot measure could put our region’s economic vitality and public health in danger.”