The going rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is about $2,500 a month. That’s the same amount the city pays to use eight miles of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park as a reservoir.
The $30,000 annual fee was set by federal law in 1913 and has not been changed since. But now, as the federal government struggles with budget problems, a Central Valley congressman is pushing to increase the city’s Hetch Hetchy rent by a thousandfold, to $34 million a year.
Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican from Tulare, said the current low rent amounts to a federal subsidy for San Francisco’s water and electricity supply and is unfair to farmers in his heavily agricultural district, whose water supply is diminished. He proposed to Congress’ Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction that the city be made to pay a fee comparable to what the government sought to charge Southern California Edison to operate a reservoir in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
The extra money would be a drip in the country’s deep financial hole, but it would drive up the city’s municipal power costs and reverberate through the water bills of 2.5 million Bay Area residents.
The fee was established by the Raker Act, which was supported by influential San Francisco civic leaders but opposed by early environmentalists. It permitted San Francisco to build O’Shaughnessy Dam and lock in cheap hydroelectricity and water supplies.
The Raker Act “made some people within the city enormously wealthy,” said Gray Brechin, a visiting scholar in the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. “Arid land without water is virtually worthless.”
The city agency that operates the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, defended the unchanged $30,000 annual fee, noting that the agency also pays $5 million a year to reimburse the federal government for security, trail maintenance, water monitoring and other services around the reservoir.
“We get value out of it and the National Park Service gets value out of it,” said Michael Carlin, the agency’s deputy general manager.
But Nunes said San Francisco Congressional leaders have backed legislation that diverted water away from farmers in his parched district by restricting the amount they can draw from the San Joaquin River. “Meanwhile, they’re taking water from the exact same area, piping it and then not paying anything for it,” Nunes said. “I believe that the Congress will continue to address this, especially as extreme liberals from San Francisco try to take other people’s water away.” Republicans attempted to increase the rent on Hetch Hetchy in 1995 and 2005, but failed under pressure from Bay Area Democrats.
Meanwhile, Rep. Dan Lungren, a Republican from Gold River, said he wanted an investigation into whether San Francisco’s use of the water violates the Raker Act by taking more water than he says it needs. He is also seeking a study of the feasibility of draining the reservoir and restoring the meadows on the valley floor, a move supported by many environmentalists.
This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.