Monday, April 04, 2005

The Debilitating Disease Of Green Myopia

The Los Angeles Times today brings us a report on the proposed demolition of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir -- and the O'Shaughnessy Dam that holds it back. Last October, Environment Defense published a series of reports on the reservoir; a series of editorials based on those reports recently won a Pulitzer Prize for the Sacramento Bee.

John Muir called the Hetch Hetchy Valley another Yosemite. Similar to the Yosemite Valley in construction, it was carved by Ice Age glaciers plowing down through what is now the bed of the Tuolomne River. The dam, one of the most controversial in U.S. history because of its location in a national park, broke Muir, who died shortly after he failed to stop its construction. Ever since, environmentalists have tried to remove the dam. In the 1988, President Reagan's Interior Secretary, Don Hodel, even came up with a proposal to demolish the dam and replace it with another one elsewhere.

As expected, the major opposition comes from San Francisco's business community, in the guise of the Bay Area Council. In the west, where whiskey's for drinkin' and water's for fightin', their principle objections come from water use rights. Breaking the O'Shaughnessy Dam would also break the compact that ended California's intrastate water wars. Those old enough to recall the failed 1982 Proposition 9 vote that would have funded the Peripheral Canal, diverting some Sacramento River delta water to Southern California, also realize what a bloody fight it was and how polarizing it was to the entire state. (As an aside, citing "[r]ecent developments in the Delta, particularly the failure of the Jones Tract levee and the subsequent flooding of over 12,000 acres of farmland," this legal news website has an abstract indicating recent changes may reopen this political booby-trap anyway.)

Another point the Bay Area Council makes is that by reopening the compact, the Bay Area now goes to the back of the bus on water rights:

The Bay Area's water supplies have been protected because of the seniority of its water rights dating to 1913. If the Bay Area lost Hetch Hetchy, we would lose the benefit of the seniority of our claim. The region would move from essentially the front of the line to the very end of the line for our claim on perhaps the scarcest resource in the state.
But the point neither group takes seriously or even addresses adequately is the loss of electrical generating capacity. Because Hetch Hetchy is a deep, narrow valley, it is perfectly suited to generating electricity, something the proposed Calaveras replacement reservoir would not be. According to Chapter 9 (PDF) of the Environment Defense proposal, up to 690 million kWh would be lost. Worst of all, the greatest impact would occur in late summer and early fall -- high utilization times for the state. While the overall peak capacity of the units affected is relatively tiny compared to modern coal-fired power plants (about 200 MW at Kirkwood and Moccasin combined), it still has advantages over the possible replacements the proposal lists, which are four: conservation, expanded dynamic pricing, construction of new renewable powerplants, and construction of new gas-fired powerplants.

While I'm not unsympathetic to the first two approaches in general -- how many times have I beat on the drums of conservation and dynamic pricing lately? -- for reasons of dispatchability and/or siting, it's highly unlikely that any combination of wind or geothermal, the two most viable renewable replacements mentioned in the report, will meet the state's medium-term needs. The problem, ultimately, is this proposal destroys production while adding to the problems of natural gas depletion and greenhouse gases. If the Greens' rallying cry is "think globally, act locally", the demolition of the O'Shaughnessy Dam would seem to stand that on its head.