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Undam a Grand Sierra Valley? A Plan That Quite Holds Water

February 21, 1988|Bill Stall | Bill Stall is a Times editorial writer

The United States used to be where anything was possible and visionaries were not content to dream small dreams or heed naysayers. But for the past six months, the glorious idea of restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park by removing San Francisco's O'Shaughnessy Dam has been derided by narrow minds muttering little protestations why it cannot be done.

Of course it can. Within 25 years, on the 100th anniversary of Congress' infamous Raker Act that doomed Hetch Hetchy, a visitor could stand in awe on the valley floor as naturalist John Muir did before the magnificent Sierra canyon was flooded. "Imagine yourself in Hetch Hetchy on a sunny day in June," Muir wrote in 1908, "standing waist-deep in grass and flowers, while the great pines sway dreamily with scarcely perceptible motion."

Replanted pines might not have grown much by then, but nature has tremendous powers of restoration and regeneration as it has demonstrated once again with the vigorous new growth poking through the volcanic devastation around Washington's Mt. St. Helens.

Something of a ring would encircle the valley's granite walls where the reservoir's surface was, but new lichen and other vegetation would make it less apparent. The treeless meadow of the lower valley would come close to resembling Muir's Hetch Hetchy as "a grand landscape garden, one of nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples."

On the immediate political level the issue is not simply one of demolishing the 430-foot-high dam on the Tuolumne River and emptying the reservoir. One major problem is the source of the impetus for draining Hetch Hetchy, which is the keystone of San Francisco's water and hydropower system. The idea came from Donald P. Hodel, the Reagan Administration's conservative secretary of the Interior. Hodel's proposal last August was a big jolt for everyone, from Dianne Feinstein, then mayor of San Francisco, to members of the San Francisco-based Sierra Club, under whose banner Muir carried his futile fight early in the century to save Hetch Hetchy.

The idea was so stunning and uncharacteristic of the Administration that everyone focused as much on Hodel and his possible motives as on the proposal itself. Even those who found the idea immediately appealing asked: What mischief is he up to? Why is he doing this?

There were plenty of possibilities: Hodel was getting back at the California environmentalists who gave him such a bad time when he tried to lease the Pacific's outer-continental shelf for oil exploration and drilling; Hodel was seeking to exacerbate California's north-south water wars, or he was trying to overcome a dismal environmental record with one grand stroke.

Feinstein made matters worse for those defending the idea of a dam and reservoir in the heart of one of the nation's premier national parks. She called the Tuolumne water system San Francisco's "birthright," a ludicrous notion, and said the dam had actually preserved Hetch Hetchy Valley from being overrun by tourists.

Environmental groups, caught off guard, tempered their surprise and enthusiasm with skepticism. After all, if Hodel was proposing it, something must be wrong. At first, the other shoe waiting to be dropped seemed to be the idea that alternate water for the city might come from construction of the dubious Auburn Dam on the American River above Sacramento--a plan just as abhorrent to many environmentalists as the rebirth of Hetch Hetchy Valley was joyous. Later, however, Hodel said that sufficient other supplies could be found without Auburn Dam.

In succeeding months Hodel's proposal gained speed. But most groups contained their enthusiasm for no other reason than their suspicions of the source. Hodel's energy has not waned, however. He has Interior bureaucrats hard at work on preliminary studies and, as recently as the end of January, he delivered a major address on Hetch Hetchy to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. Give him credit at least for not shying from hostile audiences.

Feinstein, who retired from office in January, led the chorus of negativists propounding a variety of reasons why Hetch Hetchy couldn't be restored: The valley floor would be covered with muck and silt; there would be an ugly bathtub ring all around it; Hetch Hetchy would become just another overcrowded Yosemite Valley with smog-spewing autos, stores and campgrounds; it would cost as much as $6 billion to tear down the dam and replace the water and power-generation San Francisco would lose; there was no other water available anyway; removal of the dam would hurt white-water rafting downstream in dry summer months.

"In short," Feinstein wrote, "nothing about the proposal to tear down Hetch Hetchy holds water."

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