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No Primordial Future for Hetch Hetchy

August 23, 1987|DIANNE FEINSTEIN | Dianne Feinstein is mayor of San Francisco.

Americans are inured to peculiar ideas out of Washington. So when the secretary of the interior proposed tearing down one of America's most efficient water and power systems to enhance the scenery, the idea was only slightly stupefying.

But when California's governor nods favorably, a Times editorial writer finds the notion of dismantling the O'Shaughnessy Dam and restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley "wonderfully appealing," and the Sierra Club quickly embraces the concept, it is time to bring the discussion back to reality.

Hetch Hetchy system is an intricate marvel of engineering from which flows the largest single water supply in Northern California. In a state desperate for new water sources, it is a living monument to the farsightedness of San Francisco's water-wise forefathers 70 years ago.

Hetch Hetchy's totally reliable water supply is of the highest quality, incomparable in its purity and essential to the public health of more than two million people in 28 communities--as well as a dependable source of hydroelectric power for San Francisco public services and for two of California's most productive agricultural districts.

There is no viable alternative to this water supply--in either quantity or quality. Hypothetical alternatives would be prohibitively expensive--estimated at $6 billion--and environmentally destructive.

Hetch Hetchy would in no way relieve congestion and overcrowding in Yosemite Valley. Hetch Hetchy Valley is only one-third the size, offers only 1 square miles of level valley floor and is 1 1/2 to 2 hours farther away. People would still go to Yosemite Valley.

The splendor of the Hetch Hetchy wilderness remains wonderfully preserved--the works of man only minimally intrusive and the valley open to the public. If the O'Shaughnessy Dam were removed, the Tuolumne River would become a trickle from July into the winter--with none of the "white water" recreation and little fishing or rafting the dam now permits during summer months.

San Francisco maintains the Hetch Hetchy facilities beautifully, protecting the splendid mountain area for the public--while the demolition of the dam's 750,000 cubic yards of concrete and 700,000 pounds of steel would in itself degrade the environment.

In short, nothing about the proposal on Hetch Hetchy holds water.

Yes, any of us might look back to the days when a pristine valley was untouched by humankind--and wish that it had remained so. But that battle was fought and lost 70 years ago. The Hetch Hetchy Valley will never again be untouched, or ever again return to its primordial state. And turning back the clock won't solve California's present-day water problems.

Today, one might as readily argue that the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir--one of California's great beauty spots--should forever remain untouched by the traffic, pollution and over-population now visited upon Yosemite. In other words, God save Hetch Hetchy from the fate Secretary of Interior Donald P. Hodel seems to wish upon it.

An appalling aspect of this essentially ludicrous proposal is that the idea became public before Hodel himself understood its full import: the magnitude of the Hetch Hetchy system, its major contributions to California and the lack of logical alternatives. I am grateful that the secretary has accepted my invitation to give him a firsthand tour of Hetch Hetchy, and look forward to showing him what a vital resource it is.

I suspect that since first voicing his idea, and talking with me, Hodel has begun rethinking the whole situation. Because it has been largely ignored by the media, let me quote a key paragraph from his letter to me, dated August 7:

"I have understood from the beginning that the concept of reclaiming the Hetch Hetchy Valley will have merit if, and only if, a future source of replacement water and power, adequate in terms of quality and quantity, can be assured for the city of San Francisco and any other communities which currently rely on the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir."

That means replacing both the water and power Hetch Hetchy generates for San Francisco's public buildings, street lights and municipal railway--valued at $56 million a year--and distributions to other communities averaging $60 million to $100 million a year.

We know without doubt that the high-quality water Hetch Hetchy supplies cannot be produced from lower reservoirs exposed to more bacterial action and pollution. And we know for sure that no alternative suggestions would replace the hydroelectric power so essential to San Francisco--and the substantial financial return it makes on their investment.

Another paragraph in Hodel's letter emphasizes that his Hetch Hetchy proposal "is just an idea, a single step in what could be a thousand-mile journey."

With all due respect, Mr. Secretary, that step would seem to be backwards.

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