SAN FRANCISCO — Environmentalists were stunned and San Francisco officials were outraged Thursday by Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel's suggestion that Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park be drained and the valley restored to its natural state.
Hetch Hetchy Valley, dammed and flooded in the 1920s despite bitter opposition from Sierra Club founder John Muir, provides drinking water for an estimated 2 million people in the San Francisco area, and both critics and supporters of Hodel's idea pointed Thursday to major financial, political and logistical barriers.
In a move he described as very preliminary, Hodel directed his staff to investigate the possibility of finding an alternative water supply for San Francisco and restoring Hetch Hetchy. Restoration would require razing the 430-foot, 64-year-old O'Shaughnessy Dam on the Tuolomne River and dismantling power plants downstream.
Hodel said in a staff memo that persuading San Francisco officials to "go along with us is only the beginning." Once the reservoir is emptied, he wrote, "we will have to clean up the valley and revegetate it, and remove the dam." He said that within a decade, "we will see green mountain meadows and young forests and wildlife."
In a telephone interview from Portland, where he had stopped en route to Alaska, Hodel said draining the reservoir would allow the federal government to "add a second Yosemite Valley" to Yosemite National Park, making the heavily used park accessible to more tourists.
"I tried to make plain that is not a proposal," Hodel added. "This is an idea that I thought merited some consideration. . . . On the face of it, what a wonderful thing it would be if we could return to Yosemite National Park a second valley. . . . I'm not suggesting that we proceed willy-nilly.
"This is the kind of idea that could only come from a Secretary of the Interior who is not accused of being a single-interest environmentalist secretary."
Hodel is often regarded as a pro-development secretary by environmentalists. Some expressed astonishment at Hodel's Hetch Hetchy idea, disclosed in an interview published Thursday by the New York Times. Others were skeptical of his motives.
Bob Hattoy, Sierra Club Southern California regional director, called the secretary's pitch an unexpected "curve ball in our direction," but he indicated his support.
Dam 'Was a Mistake'
"It has always been a dream of ours (to restore the valley,)" said Michael Fisher, the club's executive director. Building the dam "was a mistake our forefathers made that could be corrected."
Other environmentalists suggested that Hodel was seeking backing for the proposed $2-billion Auburn dam on the middle fork of the American River. In his staff memo, Hodel suggested that water from Hetch Hetchy could be replaced by a reservoir behind an Auburn dam.
The Auburn project, now stalled, is opposed by environmentalists, in part because it would flood an area for which they want federal wilderness protection.
"The only plausible politically based motivation would be to heighten the interest in an Auburn dam project," said John Amodio, a former executive director of the Tuolomne River Preservation Trust and veteran of several environmental fights. Amodio said environmentalists would agree to study the dismantling of the Hetch Hetchy system but would not endorse it if it meant construction of an Auburn dam.
"This is clearly a last-ditch effort to find new support for the construction of a huge Auburn dam," Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) said. "But the secretary is dead wrong if he thinks Californians are willing to trade Hetch Hetchy for the Auburn dam."
San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein lashed out at the idea, and several California congressional leaders scoffed at it.
Water Is 'Birthright'
"I'll do all in my power to fight it," said Feinstein. The mayor said Hetch Hetchy water, noted for its high quality and smooth taste, is a "birthright" of San Franciscans. She called Hodel's plan the worst idea "since selling arms to the Ayatollah (Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran)," and one that should be run through "Ollie North's shredder."
Citing the herculean task of dismantling the project, Feinstein said, "All this is for an expanded campground? . . . It's dumb, dumb, dumb."
"I'm still trying to figure it all out," said Rep. Richard Lehman (D-Sanger), whose district includes Yosemite, adding that Hodel phoned him with the idea two days ago.
"We've had so many bad experiences with Hodel," Lehman said, citing the Administration's call for increased off-shore oil drilling, opposition to more wilderness area and support of dams on the Tuolomne.