09/05/2012 06:40 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

A San Francisco Values Debate

Ninety-nine years ago, San Francisco unintentionally launched the modern environmental movement by lobbying Congress to permit it to flood a unique valley in Yosemite National Park. For the first time since our country's founding, a segment of the American public -- led by renowned naturalist John Muir -- cried out against the prevailing value system, which honored commercial development over environmental stewardship.

This fall, San Francisco will revisit that debate, the outcome of which will have national consequences.

Hetch Hetchy Valley was once a diverse ecosystem teeming with bears, mountain lions, wildflowers and thousand-year-old trees. Muir called it "a grand landscape garden, one of nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples." None of this mattered, however, to the leaders of San Francisco, who saw the valley as a convenient storage tank for water from the Tuolumne River.

Rallied by John Muir, newspapers from coast to coast ran outraged letters and editorials opposing the idea that this treasured public wilderness may be commandeered by one city for its own use. Despite this national outcry to protect Yosemite, in 1913 Congress approved San Francisco's proposal to dam the river and bury Hetch Hetchy Valley.

The valley's destruction helped spur the creation of the National Park Service, the Sierra Club and the international environmental conservation movement. These forces banded together and subsequently prevented the damming of other environmental treasures such as Dinosaur National Monument and Grand Canyon National Park. To this day, San Francisco is the only American city to operate a utility inside a national park.

Fast-forward 99 years. San Francisco is now considered a bastion of environmentalism and a public policy trend-setter. In many ways, the city has earned this reputation. But generations have taken the city's environmentally-damaging water system for granted, and the city has neglected to invest in sustainable local water sources such as water recycling, rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharge. In fact, "green" San Francisco lags far behind Orange County and Los Angeles in terms of water stewardship.

Earlier this summer, a coalition of environmentalists, engineers and water experts succeeded in gathering enough signatures to place a measure on San Francisco's November ballot that gives voters a chance to finally start undoing the damage. Proposition F, the Water Conservation & Yosemite Restoration Initiative (available for review here), would require the city to develop a long-term plan to increase local water supplies, recycle more water, and return Hetch Hetchy Valley to the National Park Service so it may be restored and re-opened to the public. This water conservation plan would then be presented for approval to the voters in 2016. Prop F is simply a small first step towards a more sustainable future for San Francisco and Yosemite.

But just as the debate about its flooding was a conversation about values, so too is the debate about Hetch Hetchy's restoration. Can one of America's major metropolitan areas reduce damage to the environment in the 21st century by reforming a system it built in the 20th century? This is a question that people in every city should ask themselves. If embraced by voters, San Francisco's water reform plan will become a standard by which other communities across the country can measure their own progress towards reform. Ours is a campaign every forward-thinking American should support.

But Proposition F is opposed by virtually every member of San Francisco's elected leadership. It's a classic case of politicians "talking the talk" but refusing to "walk the walk" in America's most liberal city.

Hetch Hetchy is not a water source; it is simply a water storage site -- one of nine reservoirs in San Francisco's water system. The Tuolumne River is the source of San Francisco's water, and would continue to be the primary source even if Hetch Hetchy Valley were restored.

The Yosemite Restoration Campaign is focusing public education efforts on the importance of responsible and sustainable water management. Although Congress granted us the right to store water in Yosemite National Park, we should not occupy the park forever. We now recognize that the destruction of wilderness is a cause of global warming. We now understand how our water system has depleted the salmon population on the Tuolumne River and polluted San Francisco Bay. We now know we have the engineering and conservation capabilities to reform the system and restore the valley. Given that, doesn't San Francisco have an obligation to at least try to do better?

In the coming weeks I'll share more about the battle, and how the success of this water reform effort can serve as a model for other environmental restoration efforts. I'll also talk frankly about how San Francisco can overcome its embarrassing environmental hypocrisy and embrace the future.