Tuesday, June 17, 2008

My Cup of Tea

This gorgeous waterfall is my cup of tea.

Also yours, and the cups of 2.4 million other Bay Area residents.

The fall flows into the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, an enormous pool of water in Yosemite National Park. Water from the reservoir travels 160 miles via gravity – ancient Roman aqueducts, anyone? – to the Bay Area to water our plants and wash our hair.

I visited Hetch Hetchy last weekend and was awed.

The reservoir was created by damming the Tuolomne River following a congressional act of 1913 allowing Yosemite lands to be developed for water supply. The construction of O’Shaughnessy Dam flooded the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a land that -- according to early-20th-century naturalist John Muir -- once rivaled Yosemite Valley in grandeur, with majestic granite cliffs presiding over idyllic

There are still people calling upon the government to “Restore Hetch Hetchy” to its earlier beauty. It’s high time to remove the dam, they say. They claim something has been lost.

They may be right.

But Hetch Hetchy is still incredibly gorgeous now, with its hulking rock formations rising above a deeply blue lake that stretches into distant crevices. It is eight miles long and can hold up to 117 billion gallons of water, according to a brochure created by San Francisco and the park service.

Waterfalls tumble down hillsides and pines overlook the artificial sea. It is awesome – both awe-inspiring, and totally radical, dude.

Hiking to Wapama Falls, pictured above, puts a new perspective on where water comes from. I got home and turned on the tap and tried to square the tinny-tasting stuff coming out – a product of my old, old pipes – with the icy shower that rained down from Wapama. No such luck. But I did get Palo Alto's 2007 Water Quality Report in the mail the day before, which informed me that 87 percent of the city's water comes from Hetch Hetchy. Nestled in the pristine high Sierras, that water is so clean it needn't even be filtered, according to the booklet.

Despite the serene surroundings of our drinking water, all is not well in Paradise. The pipelines that bring Hetch Hetchy’s sparkling sea to our faucets cross three fault lines. Officials worry an earthquake could have disastrous consequences.

To read more about possible water doom and efforts to head it off, check out Sue Dremann’s excellent piece for the Palo Alto Weekly from November. (It just won first place for “analysis” in the 2007 Peninsula Press Club awards, held this June.)

Or visit Hetch Hetchy. It’ll get you thinking about water, guaranteed.

A numbers note: Just how many Bay Area residents drink Hetch Hetchy water is a bit unclear to me. The figure 2.4 million is commonly cited, including in a brochure produced by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, city and county of San Francisco and the National Park Service called “Hetch Hetchy and Tuolomne River Watershed.” Yet the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency states 1.7 million.

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