A New Vision for Restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley

The following presentation was made at the Restore Hetch Hetchy fundraising event at the Berkeley City Club on Saturday, March 17th, 2018 by Obi Kaufmann:

Making good sense of anything in these long days of miasmic political gridlock seems Herculean, or maybe Sisyphean – pick your ancient myth, or more probably in this crowd, your tragedy. The compass spins and any orientation to such basic civic discourse about what is reasonable? What is compassionate? What is ethical? is lost to the ceaseless torpor of argument. We are gathered here tonight to support RESTORE HETCH HETCHY, and I believe with all my heart that this project is the jewel in the crown of a new majestic day for California – the bravest opportunity to present to the whole world the gift of an emancipated Hetch Hetchy as a symbol of who we are, as Californians, and in our most solemn posture to present a unity of identity – one that understands that all the rights we enjoy are met with equal responsibilities. Despite the daily tweeting of old hearted, corporate mouth pieces who sow conflict, we continue our march toward a new reality. A reality whereby putting aside some indulgences of consumerist modernity, with its artificial contrivances of the red versus blue disparity, and we take to investing in great acts of restoration, we will continue our state’s legacy of standing up for what is right and in doing what just makes plain, good sense.

In truth, this obfuscating cloud that spews from professional politics and media punditry is something that we’ve all been sold, and we have all willingly bought. Those who continue to sell us that refrain of endless calamity and unrest are beginning to make some unwise moves in their game against us in their drive for endless profit. An almost seismic event has occurred and continues its up thrust right now through the bedrock of what it is to be a Californian, today, in the last days of winter, 2018. Like the Sierra Nevada and its 200-million-year quest skyward to wrestle its westward slope into an isolated paradise, a move that set California toward its own evolution of endemic identity, we are taking back what it is to be unified as Californians. I’ve been on book tour for the past six months and I’ve seen it from San Diego, to Fresno, to Quincy, to Arcata – we are waking up to the responsibilities that complement every single right that we enjoy, living in this, the most beautiful of all the world’s corners.

The California Field Atlas, my first major publication, has now sat in the number one bestseller position for paperback nonfiction across Northern California for ten weeks. In this reference book of several hundred of my hand-painted maps of the what I call the living networks of earth, air, fire and water, I present an inventory of conservation based on my five decades of hiking, dreaming, sweating, loving, and living in the state of my birth. If I could draw a hundred maps a day of California for the rest of my life, I would still be unable to tell the whole story that I want to tell, I could not sing all of California’s song of glory. I will go as far as I can: I’ve just signed into contract with HEYDAY books for the making of three more Field Atlases, to be called the California Lands Trilogy – the Forests of California will be here in the Fall of 2019 and then the Coasts of California and lastly the Desert of California will come a year after. Before I could get to those books, books that will go into unprecedented detail about the natural world of California – where it has been, where it continues, and where it will always be despite our successfully implemented, urban and agricultural veneer – I had a fourth book in me that needed to come out first: THE STATE OF WATER – a conservation Field Atlas to California’s most precious resource, and it will come out next spring.

I needed to get this book out first because 1) I needed to get it right in my mind and heart and 2) the world of California water deserves a new manifesto; how humans use California water can be terribly confusing as it exists in a labyrinth of convoluted allocations that are certainly, intentionally circuitous. I madly took it on myself to present a democratized reference book for the lay-person. I was talking with my editor about the book the other day, when we decided that it would come out next spring, and he suggested that I might need amend it, given how quickly the news changes these days. I told him that I am not going to need to – for those of us who study California water and California climate, and as it is, the idea behind my pending book: the next one hundred years are going to go one way and new water projects (of which we’ve got four proposed: 1. The Sites Project in the Sacramento Valley’s northwest corner 2. The Millennium Dam on the overtaxed Bear River 3. Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin and 4. The Governor’s so-called Water Fix – the Delta tunnels, or tunnel as it stands now) are not going to help. With one time-tested concept, we can enjoy the three pillars of water use (1. Agricultural, 2. Municipal and 3. Environmental) in this state long into the future – that concept is conservation. In THE STATE OF WATER, I take the seven key examples of how we have divvied California’s waterscape, how we dole it out, and even suggest a moderate plan for working it into a more efficient version of itself to better serve 22nd century needs.

Number one, I discuss the remove of the four dams on the Klamath river and its implications toward the recovery of our salmon populations. Number two, I discuss the Sacramento River, the dangerous, aging infrastructure of its tributaries and how an illegal move to raise the Shasta Dam by 18 feet should be met with fierce resistance. Number three, I discuss the San Joaquin River Restoration Project and how because of its efforts, we witnessed spring run Chinook Salmon spawn south of Friant dam for the first time in 60 years. Number four, I discuss the State water and the Central Valley projects as a networked system, who uses it and how we might be able to trim several million-acre feet from its per annum usage based on conservation technologies and practices. Number five, I discuss the Colorado River and the playground policies that govern its straggled and diminishing flow. Number six, I call the Salton Sea our State’s number one mess – our single most costly and important remediation emergency. And then number seven, unique in all the history of California Water, I call for the restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley as the most symbolically important restoration project on the table today.

I foresee O’Shaughnessy Dam breached in my lifetime. I see San Franciscans embracing the water security offered by an already augmented San Pedro Dam, while rejecting the modicum of power offered by the three existing powerhouses upriver from San Pedro as falsely green as they have already been rejected as being ineligible for Governor Brown’s 2045 clean power mandate. I see San Francisco reclaiming its title, its identity as a truly green city, perhaps the first, historically self-identified green city, by throwing off this hypocrisy that it has lazily enjoyed for so long. I see the National Park Service supporting a no-brainer investment towards a pending windfall with this now uncovered treasure. Most importantly, in the restoration of Hetch Hetchy, I see the exciting work of hope kindled in a citizenry unafraid and un-shy to take back its legacy, uniting in a single voice to this keystone moment, indicative even of greater things to come.

I told my editor when we were talking about the book that one of the reasons that within two years, we won’t need a new amendment to the factual statements in the book, I thought of two metaphors – 1) that constantly paying mind to the deafening cycles of media news is akin to listening to the chatter of termites, behavior that might drive the bear mad were she not able to get to them. And 2) that we are talking about moving rivers – deep, long-cut entrenchments in the most incalcitrant landscapes of our society, and moving rivers takes time. One day you find that your maps are outdated, that public paradigms have pushed the old fences out to disfunction and we are then made free to enjoy the new freedoms of a restored landscape, both inner and outer, towards our relationship with each other, with the land and towards both the past and the future.

It is going to take a lot of work, but we are Californians and we are not afraid of work. I would like to offer one last metaphor before my parting words and I would like to offer it as a toast. Please raise you glass. Reaching the top of the mountain is a mixed victory, from up here we can see how far we have come, and yet we can also see how far we have to go. To all the mountain tops. Cheers.

I will leave you tonight with a brief poem I wrote backpacking the high country in Yosemite last year. I post a poem nearly every day, along with a painting or a picture of the landscape that I am in at COYOTETHUNDER on instagram.

It has been a hundred years that my heart was buried in the still water. Every evening at sunset I see a thousand cranes rise from the reservoir and on their wings, the valley empties. In the morning, the bear’s dream of their return with sapphire eyes uncut on salmon’s tooth. In a thousand years, the liquid granite will begin to forget the thirst stains marring the holy bowl across the outstretched song of the river, beneath the arboreal pulse of the restored place that was meant for sky, not flood.

Restore Hetch Hetchy, painted by Obi Kaufmann