Hetch Hetchy Idea Deserves Hearing

San Francisco Has Other Satisfactory Water and Power Sources

by J. Michael McCloskey, Chairman of the Sierra Club


(As printed in leading newspapers, including the Los Angeles Tiems on Wednesday, August 12, 1987.)

Hetch Hetchy Before 1923 construction of dam

It has been a long time since secretaries of the Interior expresed themselves on whether Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park should be dammed - which it was, in the early 1920s, despite the Sierra Club's repeated objections and John Muir's vehement protests. Last week Secretary of the Interior Donald P. Hodel popped into the news with the suggestion that Hetch Hetchy be undammmed to create a second Yosemite Valley.

One can only wonder why the idea was launched with so much fanfare and so little preparation just as the secretary was about to fly to Alaska to immerse himself in a major confrontation with environmentalists over his proposals to open the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. According to the secretary, he got the idea as a result of turning down proposals to rebuild three small dams in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Whatever the reason, Hodel's proposal to restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley to its natural condition deserves to be examined in its own right.

For the Sierra Club it is a cause that never died. Nearly 80 years ago club leader William Colby vowed that this was a fight that the organization would pursue "if it shall take until doomsday."

O'Shaughnessy Dam has been in place since the 1920s, but the outlines of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, which epitomize what the world sees in Yosemite, remain. More than a century ago Josiah Whitney, calling Hetch Hetchy "almost an exact counterpart of the Yosemite" Valley, said, "it is not on quite as grand a scale as that valley, but if there were no Yosemite, the Hetchy Hetchy would be fairly entitlted to a worldwide fame."

Dams do not last forever, and someday this dam will have to come out. Hetch Hetchy's predecessor at Lake Eleanor, a bit to the north but also within the confines of the park, is already obsolete and leaking badly. San Francisco has tried twice to secure further rights in Yosemite National Park to expand and replace these projects, and failed both times. As the 20th Century ends, it is unthinkable that further incursions into our earliest major park will be allowed. At some point San Francisco wil have to find alternatives for the water and power that it gets from these sites.

It should not be forgotten that these two projects represent a monumental embarassment for the nation that orginated both the idea of national parks and the standards for their protection. More and more countries are establishing national park systems modeled on ours, and are being urged to adhere to the standards that we worked out - that nature is to be fully protected in national parks and that there will be no factories, powerhouses or commercial exploitation within them. Yet, having urged these standards on others, we are shamed to admit that we do not practice what we preach. In 1913 we allowed our premier park to be invaded by two dams simply because these were the cheapest and most convenient sites for the city to develop.

San Francisco has enjoyed the fruits of getting water and selling power "on the cheap" for more than half a century. This special dispensation, brought about by a lapse of national judgment, must come to an end. When it does, San Francisco won't go thirsty or without power. The city has storage rights in Don Pedro Dam downstream on the Tuolumne River, and can take its drinking water from the reservoir, which is close to the city's aqueduct. It would get the same water only from outside the park. Nor is power a problem, since Northern Caifornia utilities are awash in co-generated electricity from factories.

What cannot easily be replaced are the millions in profits that the city gets from selling the power. But there is an irony in these profits that should not be lost. The city was given a license to invade a national park to provide power for a municipal power system that it never developed. The power doesn't reach the city's residents; it is sold in the Central Valley. What would the city's Progressive-era champions like Gifford Pinchot say now if they learned that San Francisco was in the commercial business of generating and selling power, and conducting this operation from one of the grandest sites in one of our greatest national parks?

Earlier in this century other secretaries of the interior foreclosed on the future of Hetch Hetchy Valley. Now, generations later, when we can use a second Yosemite, another secretary of the interior has reoopned the issue. It is time to look seriously at how we can rectivy this calamitous mistake and restore Hetch Hetchy to Yosemite. It is time to get the "temple destroyers" out of the park.


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