Undamming Hetch Hetchy

by Carl Pope

Sierra magazine, November/December 1987, pp. 34-38


Is Interior Secretary Hodel's proposal an audacious plan to restore a spectacular "lost" valley, or a nefarious scheme designed to divide environmentalists and their political allies?

One Tuesday in August, Sierra Club Chairman Michael McCloskey received an astonishing telephone call from an old law-school classmate. On the line was Interior Secretary Donald Hodel, who has been on the opposite side of most political issues from McCloskey since those days.

"Hello, Mike -- this is Don Hodel."

"Hello, Don," said McCloskey, who was frankly surprised by the call -- and even more surprised by the time it was over. For during their conversation Hodel laid out an idea that he characterized as brand-new, yet one that from the Sierra Club's perspective was more then 70 years old: the restoration of Yosemite National Park's spectacular Hetch Hetchy Valley.

As most conservationists know, Hetch Hetchy was lost -- presumably forever -- in 1913, when Congress authorized the construction of O'Shaughnessy Dam to provide water and electrical power to the distant city of San Francisco. Ten years later the 430-foot-tall dam -- then as now, the only major hydroelectric facility within a national park -- was completed, and the waters of the Tuolumne River backed up to fill the narrow, eight-mile-long valley. The fight to save Hetch Hetchy was the last of John Muir's life, and its loss not only broke his heart but marked the first major defeat for the young Sierra Club, only then beginning to wage its battles on behalf of wilderness in the national arena.

Where had this bold idea come from? McCloskey asked Hodel. The Secretary said it had emerged from some discussions he'd been having with his staff, and that he was serious in proposing it. He told McCloskey that he had already outlined his proposal to Mayor Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco, the city that built O'Shaughnessy Dam and that not only derives its water supply from Hetch Hetchy reservoir but profits from the sale of the electricity the massive dam generates. The conversation concluded with Hodel's indication that an extensive study would be conducted to see if the idea is workable, and how it might be best carried out. It would be an undeniably complex undertaking to tear down O'Shaughnessy Dam, locate alternative sources of water for San Francisco, and possibly compensate the city for lost revenues from the sale of power -- but Hodel seemed determined to pursue the idea as far as practicable.

McCloskey hung up wondering why Hodel -- whose previous enthusiasms seemed to be reserved for exploitative activities like offshore oil drilling the leasing of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil development -- had suddenly turned into a conservationist on this issue. This is one of the two main questions that Hodel's intriguing initiative has raised -- the other being, of course, whether the idea is in fact feasible.

No one except the Secretary of the Interior himself can say with certainty what caused him to support the idea of restoring Hetch Hetchy to its original splendor. Certainly the plan marks a sharp divergence from his other policies, which have favored development of the nation's natural resources over their preservation and protection. Some early press reports speculated that Hodel was really promoting the restoration of Hetch Hetchy as a way of building support for construction of the long-delayed, partially completed Auburn Dam on the American River in the Sierra foothills. There was certainly a basis for this speculation at one time: In a memorandum to Interior Department officials, Hodel suggested that if San Francisco were to require a new water source after the demolition of O'Shaughnessy Dam, Auburn might be it.

As much as anything else, this suggestion reflected Hodel's limited knowledge of the fine-grained complexities of California's water-delivery system. Hodel and his staff have since been made aware that environmentalists flatly oppose Auburn Dam, which would be far too expensive (at $2.1 billion) and environmentally damaging to complete, and in any case is not needed to provide San Francisco with its present level of water deliveries. Also, other cities have prior claim to water rights on the American River, while San Francisco's rights are to water from the Tuolumne River system. Hodel has subsequently withdrawn Auburn Dam as a possible alternative water source. He reportedly vowed at a late-summer meeting with environmental leaders, including the Sierra Club's McCloskey, that Auburn Dam "would not be built as a federal project in [his] lifetime."

Others have theorized that Hodel's proposal was motivated by a desire to split the alliance between conservationists and the Northern California politicians who have traditionally been sympathetic to their concerns. (For example, both groups have been actively opposing Hodel's plans for oil drilling off the California coast.) But this strategy, if such it be, is ill founded: While San Francisco and the Sierra Club have disagreed since 1906 on what to do with Hetch Hetchy Valley, these disagreements are certainly not going to disrupt their shared outrage at the idea of subjecting environmentally sensitive coastal areas to oil drilling and development.

cartoon of Interior Secretary Don Hodel pulling rabbits out of a hat.

It has also been suggested that Hodel, once James Watt's right-hand man at the Interior Department and a continuing supporter of his policies, has no desire to suffer a similar political fate. (Watt was drummed out of office by a flood tide of public indignation in 1983). At the very least, his support for the restoration of Hetch Hetchy gives Hodel a response to use when newspaper editorial boards accuse him of being blindly, compulsively anticonservation.

More charitably, and without diminishing one's outrage at the rest of the Interior Secretary's policies, it must be noted that if Don Hodel were ever going to take a strongly proconservation stance, Hetch Hetchy would be a likely place to plant his feet. After all, his plan is nominally designed to promote the interests of national parks as recreation resources -- and the concept of "parks for people" seems to be one of Hodel's soft spots.

The Secretary has made it clear that the mistakes that have so diminished the grandeur of Yosemite Valley must be avoided at Hetch Hetchy: There will be no lodges, no stores, no automobiles in the restored valley. That will make it possible for millions of people over the course of generations to enjoy Hetch Hetchy and still have a far more tranquil, natural experience than they can enjoy today at Yosemite Valley. And that idea, it appears, holds a very strong appeal for Hodel.

A drumbeat of opposition to the idea of restoring Hetch Hetchy has throbbed steadily in San Francisco's media since Hodel's announcement. "The Secretary's vision is terribly flawed," editorialized the San Francisco Chronicle, which went on to brag, in classic booster's rhetoric, that Hetch Hetchy "is a whirring core that produces water, energy, and capital for millions." (As if the dam were one of the wonders of the world, guaranteed to endure for centuries, or as if the generation of revenue for San Francisco were the legitimate function of a national park!)

For her part, Mayor Feinstein seems to want to strangle the very notion in its crib: "Crazy," "the height of folly," and "the worst idea . . . since the sale of weapons to the Ayatollah" are among her public characterizations of the proposal. She has even called O'Shaughnessy Dam "beautiful" and the water it delivers to San Francisco the city's "birthright."

There are, of course, complexities that will have to be addressed, both in theory and in practice, before progress can be made toward realizing Hodel's plan. Critics of the plan often refer to the difficulty of replacing San Francisco's "lost" water supply. How, ask the local media, would San Francisco and the other cities to which it sells Hetch Hetchy water meet their needs?

The answer to that question is surprisingly simple: San Francisco would get its water from the same river it currently taps -- the Tuolumne. Removing O'Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy will not cause San Francisco to lose the water it now uses; the city will simply lose one of the many places where this water can be stored. (As David Brower has often said, you don't lose a drop of water when you tear down a dam. Rain and snow continue to fall on the watershed; all you lose is one place where the water stops, and where part of it evaporates.) There are other reservoirs on the Tuolumne system where it appears San Francisco can easily store the water that floods Hetch Hetchy today. In fact, the Tuolumne has more excess reservoir capacity than almost any other river in California.

Electrical power is a more difficult issue. With O'Shaughnessy Dam demolished, San Francisco would lose about half the power it generates on the Tuolumne. (About half comes from dams on the river that would not have to be touched in order for Hetch Hetchy to be restored.) Although there is enough surplus electrical-generating capacity in the region to replace this lost power, the city would lose the net revenue it derives from the sale of this power to other municipalities. (That sum -- nearly $50 million in 1986 -- is expected to be reduced by half this year because of California's dry winter.) One may well ask why San Francisco's general fund should be enriched by a dam in a national park. Unfortunately, that question was answered by Congress in 1913 when it passed the Raker Act, which authorized the city to construct a dam at Hetch Hetchy. It will not be easy to work out the arrangements that will convince San Francisco to give up this jealously guarded source of revenue.

The power issue exemplifies one aspect of the thorniest problem of all: money. No one knows exactly how much the restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley will cost, although San Francisco's immediate estimate of $6 billion is almost certainly excessive. In fact, the main purpose of the feasibility study that Hodel has proposed should be to identify the most cost-effective method for restoring Hetch Hetchy, and then to develop the means whereby that restoration may be financed.

The physical restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley after it has been drained raises questions of its own. Some observers have speculated that the valley might be so damaged by silt that it would be decades, even centuries, before it could reattain the grandeur that visitors would seek. However, Alexander Horne, a professor of applied ecology at the University of California at Berkeley, believes that siltation will not present an insuperable problem, and that people could begin to visit the restored Hetch Hetchy Valley within two or three years.

A second objection raised by opponents of the reclamation proposal is that Hodel's noble intention to reduce congestion in overcrowded Yosemite Valley will be frustrated by a lack of sufficient flat land in Hetch Hetchy Valley. But this misses the point. True, there may not be enough flat land at Hetch Hetchy for banks, liquor stores, and hotel parking lots. But the fact that Hetch Hetchy is much narrower than Yosemite Valley, yet almost as long, means that the visitor's experience will be even more intense there, and that there would be even less justification for allowing motorized vehicles to enter the valley. Hetch Hetchy reclaimed can be Yosemite Valley as that treasure should have been allowed to remain.

It is important to understand that the restoration of Hetch Hetchy will be a long-term project. The Department of the Interior's study process will include the Sierra Club and other interested parties (among them the city of San Francisco). Such a study will determine the cost of restoring Hetchy Hetchy; then the slow process of building public support for a specific plan will begin.

The first debate over Hetch Hetchy took a decade and mobilized public opinion across the country. The second debate may take even longer -- but it has at least begun.


At the time of writing this article, Carl Pope was the Sierra Club's Deputy Director of Conservation. He is now Executive Director of the Sierra Club.