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Hetch Hetchy: Diabolical Plan?

August 09, 1987

Never one to shy from taunting California's flower-sniffing environmentalists, Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel has caught them flat-footed and dumbfounded this time--and more than a bit suspicious of his motives.

Hodel has come up with the astounding, and wonderfully appealing, notion of draining Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park, tearing down O'Shaughnessy Dam and restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley to its original magnificence. The "new" valley, an area nine miles long and a mile wide and now rarely visited, would become a rival of Yosemite Valley itself with its towering rock walls and waterfalls.

Hodel exclaimed: "We will see green mountain meadows and young forests and wildlife. What a thrilling project that would be, and what a tremendous payoff for America!"

San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein is less than thrilled. Hetch Hetchy, approved by Congress in 1913 in a triumph over John Muir and the Sierra Club, provides her city with its total water supply, with more than half left over to sell to neighboring communities. In addition, the stored and falling waters of the Tuolumne River generate enough electric power to contribute millions to the city treasury each year. In a bit of overstatement, Feinstein considers Hetch Hetchy water a San Francisco "birthright."

No one thought much about Hetch Hetchy in recent years until the city started musing about raising the dam to get more water to sell to its neighbors and to generate more power to make more money. The subsequent outrage prompted Rep. Richard H. Lehman (D-Sanger), whose district includes Yosemite, to introduce legislation that would require congressional approval for any such expansion. The bill seems headed for passage this year.

Hodel emphasized that his idea is only that, and not a plan. One major problem is where San Francisco would get its water. Rather than being piped directly to San Francisco as it is now, the freed waters of the Tuolumne would flow down the Sierra and into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, from which much of California gets its supplies.

It would still be San Francisco's water. But there would have to be some storage facility to conserve for dry years. And here is where Hodel's motives become suspect. He suggested a revival of the controversial Auburn Dam on the American River, which he earlier this year declared dead as far as federal participation is concerned.

Perhaps Hodel is having some summer fun with California. It has stymied his plans for offshore oil drilling and challenged other of his development-oriented policies. Hodel's reasoning may have gone this way: If they are all so hot for saving the environment, let's see how they handle this one--and if we get Northern and Southern Californians fighting among themselves, so much the better.

Diabolical, of course, but the idea of "creating" another Yosemite Valley, even if it took 50 years, is an awesome challenge to the imagination.

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