Hodel Would Tear Down Dam in Hetch Hetchy

Times Staff Writers

Environmentalists were stunned and San Francisco officials were outraged Thursday by Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel’s suggestion that Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park be drained and the valley restored to its natural state.

Hetch Hetchy Valley, dammed and flooded in the 1920s despite bitter opposition from Sierra Club founder John Muir, provides drinking water for an estimated 2 million people in the San Francisco area, and both critics and supporters of Hodel’s idea pointed Thursday to major financial, political and logistical barriers.

Preliminary Move

In a move he described as very preliminary, Hodel directed his staff to investigate the possibility of finding an alternative water supply for San Francisco and restoring Hetch Hetchy. Restoration would require razing the 430-foot, 64-year-old O’Shaughnessy Dam on the Tuolomne River and dismantling power plants downstream.


Hodel said in a staff memo that persuading San Francisco officials to “go along with us is only the beginning.” Once the reservoir is emptied, he wrote, “we will have to clean up the valley and revegetate it, and remove the dam.” He said that within a decade, “we will see green mountain meadows and young forests and wildlife.”

In a telephone interview from Portland, where he had stopped en route to Alaska, Hodel said draining the reservoir would allow the federal government to “add a second Yosemite Valley” to Yosemite National Park, making the heavily used park accessible to more tourists.

“I tried to make plain that is not a proposal,” Hodel added. “This is an idea that I thought merited some consideration. . . . On the face of it, what a wonderful thing it would be if we could return to Yosemite National Park a second valley. . . . I’m not suggesting that we proceed willy-nilly.

“This is the kind of idea that could only come from a Secretary of the Interior who is not accused of being a single-interest environmentalist secretary.”

Hodel is often regarded as a pro-development secretary by environmentalists. Some expressed astonishment at Hodel’s Hetch Hetchy idea, disclosed in an interview published Thursday by the New York Times. Others were skeptical of his motives.

Bob Hattoy, Sierra Club Southern California regional director, called the secretary’s pitch an unexpected “curve ball in our direction,” but he indicated his support.


Dam ‘Was a Mistake’

“It has always been a dream of ours (to restore the valley,)” said Michael Fisher, the club’s executive director. Building the dam “was a mistake our forefathers made that could be corrected.”

Other environmentalists suggested that Hodel was seeking backing for the proposed $2-billion Auburn dam on the middle fork of the American River. In his staff memo, Hodel suggested that water from Hetch Hetchy could be replaced by a reservoir behind an Auburn dam.

The Auburn project, now stalled, is opposed by environmentalists, in part because it would flood an area for which they want federal wilderness protection.

“The only plausible politically based motivation would be to heighten the interest in an Auburn dam project,” said John Amodio, a former executive director of the Tuolomne River Preservation Trust and veteran of several environmental fights. Amodio said environmentalists would agree to study the dismantling of the Hetch Hetchy system but would not endorse it if it meant construction of an Auburn dam.

“This is clearly a last-ditch effort to find new support for the construction of a huge Auburn dam,” Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) said. “But the secretary is dead wrong if he thinks Californians are willing to trade Hetch Hetchy for the Auburn dam.”

San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein lashed out at the idea, and several California congressional leaders scoffed at it.

Water Is ‘Birthright’

“I’ll do all in my power to fight it,” said Feinstein. The mayor said Hetch Hetchy water, noted for its high quality and smooth taste, is a “birthright” of San Franciscans. She called Hodel’s plan the worst idea “since selling arms to the Ayatollah (Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran),” and one that should be run through “Ollie North’s shredder.”

Citing the herculean task of dismantling the project, Feinstein said, “All this is for an expanded campground? . . . It’s dumb, dumb, dumb.”

“I’m still trying to figure it all out,” said Rep. Richard Lehman (D-Sanger), whose district includes Yosemite, adding that Hodel phoned him with the idea two days ago.

“We’ve had so many bad experiences with Hodel,” Lehman said, citing the Administration’s call for increased off-shore oil drilling, opposition to more wilderness area and support of dams on the Tuolomne.

Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento) called it “off the wall” and said Hodel may have suggested it to “point up the shortsightedness of urban constituencies such as San Francisco, who benefit from environmental degradation such as O’Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy while enjoying the fruits.” Perhaps, Fazio said, it is an attempt to divide California constituencies.

Hodel called the adverse reaction “astonishing.”

‘Personally Hostile’

“I’m sorry that some people are so personally hostile to me that they are unable to look at the merits,” he added.

The Hetch Hetchy system was born of San Francisco’s search, dating from the mid-1800s, for drinking water for a burgeoning population. In 1913, after a decade of battles led by Muir on one side and civic boosters and large corporations on the other, President Woodrow Wilson signed the law that authorized construction.

At the time, Muir said damming the Hetch Hetchy Valley was like flooding the “people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.” The dam--largest in California at the time--was completed in 1923 and raised 12 years later. An aqueduct from the Sierra Nevada to the San Francisco Peninsula was completed in 1934.

The reservoir, nine miles long and a mile wide at its widest, provides 300 million gallons of water a day for 2 million people from San Francisco south to San Jose, plus industry in the Silicon Valley and on the San Francisco Peninsula. Power plants directly tied to the system produce electricity for the Modesto and Turlock areas, which pay San Francisco up to $26 million a year for the power.

Corey Brown, general counsel for the Sacramento-based environmentalist Planning and Conservation League, listed some probable legal and political hurdles to Hodel’s idea: a massive environmental impact statement, approval from the state Water Resources Control Board, approval from various federal departments, congressional approval and legal proceedings to take over the project from San Francisco.

Sediment Building Up

Then, after a pause, he asked, “What do you do with all the muck (remaining after the reservoir is drained)?”

Sediment has been building in the reservoir for more than 60 years. If it were emptied, “it would take at least 25 years before it would look like much,” said Robert Hagen, water specialist at the University of California, Davis.

In order to drain the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, O’Shaughnessy Dam would have to be dismantled, said Dean Coffey, general manager of Hetch Hetchy Water and Power system in San Francisco.

The structure is almost 300 feet thick at its base and consists of 674,303 pounds of concrete and 760,000 pounds of steel, all of which would have to be torn out and hauled away.

“That’s a lot of jack hammering,” Coffey said.

“The cost figures, when you start thinking about it, are into billions. That’s why no one has looked into it,” said Robert Whiting, deputy director of the state Water Resources Department.

Dan Morain reported from San Francisco and Paul Houston from Washington. Times staff writer Imbert Matthee in San Francisco also contributed to this story.