Stuart Leavenworth

Stuart Leavenworth: Chronicle gets huffy if others opine on Hetch Hetchy

Published: Sunday, Mar. 11, 2012 - 2:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 11, 2012 - 11:29 am

Back in the frontier days when newspaper editors packed pistols and kept whiskey bottles in their desks, it wasn't unusual for them to settle their disputes in barroom brawls.

Since then, we've advanced somewhat as a profession. As the saying goes, "The pen is mightier than the sword." So today I use mine to poke a few jabs at my illustrious counterpart, John Diaz, editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.

For the past several weeks, Diaz and I have engaged in a good-natured jousting of tweets over our respective editorial positions on the topic of Hetch Hetchy. This, of course, is the magnificent canyon in Yosemite National Park that San Francisco has kept submerged for 89 years to serve as a reservoir for the city's rarified citizens.

Since 2004, The Bee has advocated that Hetch Hetchy be restored as a natural canyon in our most treasured of national parks. The next year, The Bee's Tom Philp won the Pulitzer Prize in a series of editorials that laid out how San Francisco could realistically secure an alternative water supply, so restoration could occur.

Ever since then, San Francisco leaders have reflexively refused to discuss Hetch Hetchy restoration, and the Chronicle, sadly, has chosen to toe the line of the city's power brokers.

In a column last Sunday, Diaz took issue with the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times for recent editorials advocating the restoration of Hetch Hetchy. He also took a shot at The Bee, saying the newspaper was opining "from the luxury of its perch in a land of swimming pools, lawn-sprinkler cascades on 100-degree days and no water meters until very recently."

Last time I checked, low-lying Sacramento didn't have too many "perches," especially compared to a city known for Nob Hill and Pacific Heights. Nonetheless, I was going to let Diaz get away with this one. If he thinks Sacramento is such a lofty place, I'm willing to yield the floor to him.

But then I found that, the day before publishing his column, Diaz transmitted this tweet, "@hetchhetchy My Sunday column in #sfchronicle will offer perspective on why out-of-town edit boards are wrong on this."

That was it. All gloves are off when some San Franciscan suggests that "out-of-town edit boards" shouldn't be opining on what happens inside one of our national parks, especially when the Chronicle gets "out-of-town" on numerous water issues.

In the early 1990s, for instance, the Chronicle lambasted Los Angeles for its plunder of water from the Owens Valley and Mono Lake.

When state regulators finally determined that Los Angeles was violating public trust laws, the Chronicle celebrated, saying in a 1994 editorial, "The splendid ecosystem that is Mono Lake at least has a serious chance of prospering, thanks to the sapience of the state water board staff in refusing to bow to the greedy demands of Los Angelenos for water."

The Chronicle was right in cheering the Mono Lake decision, but the same arguments it used could be applied to San Francisco's misuse of water from Hetch Hetchy. That is why you may someday see a Bee editorial that reads, "The splendid ecosystem that is Hetch Hetchy Valley at least has a serious chance of prospering, thanks to the sapience of the state water board staff in refusing to bow to the greedy demands of San Franciscans for water." Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of Diaz's column was his use of "guilt by association" tactics to disparage groups advocating for Hetch Hetchy. In particular, Diaz mocked U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren's support of restoration, saying "he has become a veritable tree hugger in his embrace of dismantling O'Shaughnessy Dam."

I have little doubt that Lungren's motivations are less than pure. He may well have latched onto Hetch Hetchy so he can attempt to extract something from the Bay Area congressional delegation. That's how politics works. But Diaz would have you believe that only far-right politicians are behind this cause. No mention of respected water scientists, such as Jay Lund of UC Davis. No mention of revered environmentalists, such as the late great Tom Graff of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Diaz says it's "fantasy" that San Francisco could draw sufficient water from enlarged downstream reservoirs or through conservation or reclamation.

No, it's not. Lund and others have created a framework for how it could work. The only question now is whether San Francisco will continue to stay on the wrong side of history – and prevent restoration of a sublime canyon that John Muir once called "The Twin" of Yosemite Valley – or whether it will shed its hypocrisy and at least explore a historic opportunity that Muir would have embraced.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Stuart Leavenworth, Editorial page editor

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