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Hetch Hetchy Restored : A Look Into a Possible Future

December 27, 1987

WHEN CONGRESS APPROVED A DAM at Hetch Hetchy valley in 1913, it was said that the announcement broke John Muir's heart. The old man of the Sierra Nevada, Muir had fought for the creation of Yosemite National Park and bitterly opposed the dam that would flood one of the most scenic valleys inside the park's boundaries. Muir died less than a year later, even as construction was under way. Undoubtedly he would have felt a high sense of revenge this summer when Secretary of the Interior Donald P. Hodel suggested that the dam be demolished and Hetch Hetchy valley restored to its wilderness splendor.

No one expects this restoration to take place soon. In fact, many believe that the idea will die quietly when Hodel leaves office in January, 1989. But what if the demolition did take place? The meadows and streams of Hetch Hetchy valley have been flooded under the waters of the reservoir for more than half a century. How would the valley look immediately after the reservoir is drained? After 10 years? After 100? Though it's impossible to predict exactly, estimates can be made. Naturalists were asked to calculate the devastation wrought by the dam and then to project the various stages of recovery. Artist Daved English then drew three of those stages.

The first drawing, at right, shows the valley immediately after the lake has been drained. What people will see is not only the collected mud and drowned trees from the reservoir but the remains of the dam construction project: roads cut into the valley, waste piles, even a short railroad line that was used to carry materials to the building site.

The second scene (pages 26 and 27) reveals the valley 10 years later. Much recovery has taken place; but remnants of the damage remain. Scars from the old road are still visible, trees have not yet reappeared in the valley floor and the telltale bathtub ring from the reservoir remains.

Finally, at left, English shows the valley in full recovery, some 100 years hence. Pine and fir trees have returned to the valley floor and grown to partial maturity, grazing animals have returned and the Tuolumne River once again sports a healthy fish population.

THE RESTORATION OF HETCH HETCHY would be a remarkable achievement but an expensive one. At present the reservoir supplies drinking water to the city of San Francisco, which sponsored construction of the dam in 1913. Several options for replacing the water are available, but San Francisco has promised to fight any proposal that would shut down the Hetch Hetchy system. An Interior Department task force estimated that replacing the water lost to San Francisco would cost about $100 million. San Francisco officials have scoffed at this figure and put the real cost as high as $8 billion.

Nonetheless, the proposal has attracted the support of the Sierra Club and several other influential environmental groups. The California Legislature regards the plan as plausible enough to warrant funding of a $100,000 study of its impact on the state water system.

But without a doubt the notion of dismantling the dam at Hetch Hetchy faces a long and tortured political future. The plan will need the approval of the next presidential Administration, the Congress and, for all practical purposes, the California state government before any action is taken--which means that it will be years before any clear decision is made.

Meanwhile Hetch Hetchy--once one of the most beautiful valleys of the Sierra Nevada--stays buried, and waits.

'Ink cannot tell the glow that lights me at this moment in turning to the mountains. I feel strong (enough) to leap Yosemite walls at a bound. . . . I will fuse in spirit skies.'

--JOHN MUIR

'(The) view . . . goes far to make the weakest and meanest spectator rich and significant evermore.'

--JOHN MUIR, "TREASURES OF THE YOSEMITE"

'How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains! . . . The highest peaks burned like islands in a sea of liquid shade.'

--JOHN MUIR,"A NEAR VIEW OF THE HIGH SIERRA"

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