New Polling Indicates Cost Factor ‘Critical’ To Passage Of Hetch Hetchy Initiative11 min read

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Responding to a challenge from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) to back-up their claim city voters support restoring the Hetch Hetch Valley, Restore Hetch Hetchy (RHH) has released polling data which appears to support the non-profit organization’s assertion.

The City of San Francisco dammed the Hetch Hetchy in 1913, destroying the valley naturalist John Muir himself called, “One of God’s greatest mountain temples.” RHH and its supporters will ask city voters to restore the valley at the November, 2012 ballot box.

The survey, conducted by David Binder Research in July of 2010, indicated that the cost of the measure is a critical factor to 60 percent of city voters while 40 percent support returning the Hetch Hetchy to the National Park Service regardless of cost.

RHH has estimated the cost of restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley and re-plumbing the city’s water system to accommodate it at around $1.5 billion. The SFPUC and California Department of Water Resources have estimated the cost anywhere between $3 and $10 billion.

RHH requested the SFPUC hold a public hearing to help determine the actual cost. The SFPUC board, following what the public agency’s spokesman describes as a “voter-mandated city charter,” has steadfastly refused to hold any public hearing to discuss the feasibility and, most importantly, the cost of returning the Hetch Hetchy Valley to the National Park Service for its eventual restoration.

Over the course of the last decade, growing public awareness that the Hetch Hetchy is not the source of water for San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties water, but rather merely one of the system’s reservoirs, caused many environmentalists to speculate that voter sympathies had changed. RHH’s study has now confirmed this fact.

In a letter to RHH stakeholders last year, the organization’s executive director, Mike Marshall, explained the survey results suggested time was on the side of the initiative as younger and newer residents of San Francisco were the most likely supporters of restoring the valley to its original, pristine condition.

“Ninety years of “Hetch Hetchy” branding [of San Francisco’s water] has resulted in a broad misunderstanding of where San Franscisco’s water supply comes from,” wrote Marshall.  “The [San Francisco] electorate is very supportive of creating a more sustainable, less impactful water system. This confirms the potential benefit of our current strategy of linking the restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley and the Tuolumne River to increased investments in water efficiency, water recycling and groundwater management.”

The survey, donated and conducted by David Binder Research in tandem with what the company’s Senior Analyst, Shanan Alper, calls “an entirely unrelated issue,” asked 500 registered San Francisco voters the following questions:

1. As far as you know, what is the primary source of San Francisco’s water supply?

A. The Tuolumne River             2.6%
B. The HH Valley in Yosemite   78.8%
C. Local Ground Water            0.8%
D. Sacramento Delta               2.8%
E. Don’t Know                        15%

2. Do you support or oppose San Francisco making increased investments in modern technologies to increase water recycling, water conservation and local ground water even if it means a small increase in water rates?

A. Support       76%
B. Oppose       16.4%
C. Don’t know   7.2%

3. Would you support or oppose the restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley if replacement water and electricity supplies were provided at a SMALL INCREASE in San Francisco water and electricity rates?

A. Support       41.8%
B. Oppose       43.4%
C. Don’t Know  13.6%

4. Would you support or oppose the restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley if the federal and state governments funded the entire effort and there was NO INCREASE in San Francisco water and electricity rates?

A. Support             59%
B. Oppose             31.4%
C. Don’t Know        8.6%

As the poll indicates, nearly 80 percent of respondents mistakenly believed the Hetch Hetchy reservoir is the source of San Francisco’s water, not the correct answer, the Tuolumne river. Three-quarters, or 76 percent of respondents supported water system improvements if such improvements only resulted in “a small increase” in water and electricity rates. Neither Marshall nor Alper offered a definition of the term “small increase.”

Support for the initiative varied by gender, with women supporting the initiative more than men, 45.7 percent and 38.0% percent, respectively.

But the widest variables were age and ethnicity, with respondents over 50 years, 49.4 percent opposed the valley’s restoration, while 37.1 percent supported it.

For those under the age of 50, support to restore John Muir’s mountain temple was strong, with 67.9 percent supporting the idea and only 21.3 percent opposing it.

White respondents supported the measure by a slight majority of 54.6 percent, African-Americans by 70 percent, Latinos by 60 percent, Chinese by 79 percent, other Asian races by 67.6 percent and those self-identified as “other” by some 51 percent.

“From doing the polling we did it’s clear that the natural inclination of city voters is to support restoration,” Alper told the California Progress Report.  “The question that [RHH] poses backs it up, with 76 percent supporting increased investments, even with a small increase.”

“The definition of ‘small increase’ will be debated,” Alper told CPR, but noted that much of San Francisco’s populace are renters who are not directly affected by water and utility rates, especially among younger voters.

Who pays your bill was an undisclosed question in Marshall’s 2010 memorandum, but Alper told CPR the question was asked. “Only 24 percent of landlords supported the initiative,” said Alper, but “Two-thirds of respondents were ratepayers.”

Alper also pointed out that the survey was conducted among actual voters in 2010, “so the number of renters isn’t as high” as the actual population. Of course, non-voters are irrelevant in elections.

“The measure passes convincingly with younger voters,” said Alper. “And as younger voters become older supporters we would expect that to continue, but as always surveys are a snapshot of time.”

“The cost issue appears to be key to me, as a researcher. Determining the level of cost would be critical to measuring support,” Alper told CPR. “If [the cost to restore Hetch Hetchy] is closer to [Restore Hetch Hetchy and the Environmental Defense Fund’s estimate] the measure will pass.  If it’s closer to what the PUC has estimated, it will be much more difficult.” 

“Looking at the numbers here I think we have between a third and 40 percent who will support this measure regardless of cost, but the lower the cost, the greater the support there will be,” said Alper.

The survey reflects party affiliation as only a slight majority of white respondents support the initiative, but the more ethnically diverse San Francisco becomes, the greater the likelihood the Hetch Hetchy will be restored.

“Many African-Americans identify as progressive or liberal in San Francisco,” Alper said in response to the question. “They are very much pro-environment.”

SFPUC’s public information officer, Tyrone Jue, wondered what the other questions were on the survey, telling CPR that geographic location and a multitude of other factors can skew the results.

“The prior questions were on such a different topic that they wouldn’t have affected these questions,” responded Alper. “There are certainly cases where preceding questions can bias the answers to a question, but not in this case.  They had no impact on these questions.  We’ve been conducting surveys in San Francisco for over 20 years.  We’ll stand by these numbers,” Alper told CPR.

“Binder is an extremely well-known and accomplished survey firm in San Francisco,” Jue told CPR. “They do outstanding work.  However, demographics and cross tabulations are an important part of discerning any meaningful information from survey results. They are the means by which you can evaluate the validity of any survey.”

“The survey shows that even a ‘small increase’ in rates to drain Hetch Hetchy results in a 17.2% loss of support,” said Jue, after reviewing the poll. “A statistical swing of that magnitude indicates that people are unwilling to pay for dismantling a reliable water system that serves pristine drinking water to 2.5 million Bay Area residents and businesses.”

“It is not hard to guess how much additional support would be lost for the actual “large increase” in rates that will be required to fund a $10 billion project.  After one has dealt with the financial and environmental complications of removing a fully-built dam in a national park, one must then consider the loss of the greenhouse-gas-free and inexpensive hydroelectric power generated by the Hetch Hetchy system for vital San Francisco services like public buses, public schools, public health centers, streetlights and more,” said Jue.  “The removal of the power generation facilities would force each of these locations to purchase more expensive power on the market further compounding the financial burden on taxpayers.”

“We are enthusiastic, however, that the poll found 76% of San Franciscans supportive of our current agency efforts to invest in alternative water supplies like recycled water, water conservation, and groundwater,” said Jue.  “Even with the water storage at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and additional water conservation, future projections still show that Bay Area customer demand may still exceed the available water supply over the next decade.”

In earlier correspondences, Jue listed a number of items the SFPUC claims are lacking in the cost estimate of RHH and EDF. Spreck Rosekranz, a board member of RHH and analyst with EDF, disputes the charge the items are missing from the estimate.

“All of the items [listed by SFPUC] are considered in Environmental Defense Fund’s ‘Paradise Regained’ with exceptions as explained below,” Rosekranz wrote in an email to CPR.

Most item by item cost data is summarized in Table 10-1, though far more detail is available in Appendix A, compiled by Schlumberger Water Services for EDF. “Paradise Regained considers a Don Pedro intertie,” Rosekranz stated. “In a subsequent alternative we consider an intertie to Cherry lake instead which might not be of concern to Turlock and Modesto.”

“Run-of River operation would use the existing early Intake diversion point as it was used before Kirkwood Powerplant went into service. I am not sure why additional facilities would be needed but would be happy to discuss with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. There was no provision to compensate Turlock and Modesto as there is no harm to them in our alternatives – except we did propose to pay the $500 per acre-foot for any transfer supplies and this is included,” stated Rosekranz.

“EDF did not investigate removing the dam. DWR suggests it can be modified for a $M 200 or so or removed for $1 billion, or so,” said Rosekranz.

“Contrary to the SFPUC’s assertion, the entire capital and operating costs for new infrastructure were included in restoration reports by Environmental Defense Fund and Restore Hetch Hetchy,” stated Rosekranz. “We are not aware, however, that the Commission has read them as they have never provided specific feedback”, said Spreck Rosekrans, RHH boardmember.

“Cost estimates by the Department of Water Resources indicated that the lifecycle cost for restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park would be in the neighborhood of $3 billion dollars, far less than the higher costs asserted by the SFPUC with no detail to back it up. And even the State’s $3 billion dollar figure is an overestimate of what is needed as it would replace lost water supply three times over,” Rosekrans surmised.

This article is part of California Progress Report’s coverage of this important issue.  Read more here and here.

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Dan Aiello is the California Progress Report’s Sacramento reporter. View his past work or follow him on Twitter @capitolcity.

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