A Natural Dilemma: Damned If They Do, Dammed If They Don’t

Times Staff Writers

Up a winding High Sierra road, past granite cliffs and pine, the habitat of black bear, falcons and an occasional mountain lion, O’Shaughnessy Dam rises more than 300 feet, a reminder to environmentalists of why they fight.

“Dam the Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man,” John Muir once declared of the valley. That oft-repeated line has served as both a warning of what happens when environmental concerns are ignored, and a battle cry to mobilize the forces against any other proposal that might be called “another Hetch Hetchy.”

The damming of the Tuolumne River in Hetch Hetchy Valley was the century’s first great fight over an environmental issue, one that filled the nation’s newspapers, plus the Congressional Record. It was the classic war of the West--a fight to fill the cups of semi-arid San Francisco, against, as they were called, “sentimental nature lovers” led by Sierra Club founder Muir.

A Delicate Position


Now, by suggesting that the destruction of O’Shaughnessy Dam be studied, Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel has taken a step toward reopening the debate, and has placed environmentalists, the Sierra Club in particular, in a delicate position.

Should it take up Hodel’s challenge, the club could find itself at odds with some of its strongest supporters--liberal San Francisco officials--and in an alliance with a bitter foe, the Reagan Administration’s interior secretary.

The club is proceeding carefully, “sizing up the opportunity,” deciding whether to place Hetch Hetchy on its to-do list, alongside an extension of the Clean Air Act, defense of the Alaskan wilderness area, and a national park for the California desert, said Michael McCloskey, the club’s executive director. Not since the 1920s has the club included Hetch Hetchy on its list.

The story of Hetch Hetchy goes back to the 1800s when, after tapping its local water sources, San Francisco made its first forays east. The city became more serious in 1901, when Mayor James D. Phelan dispatched an official of the U.S. Geological Survey on a secret mission to study the High Sierra. Later, Phelan filed for the water rights himself to the Tuolumne, ensuring that no private company got there first.


But the problem was clear: The watershed was in Yosemite National Park, and interior secretaries of the time denied the city the right to dam the river. Then the 1906 earthquake hit San Francisco. With a water supply inadequate to douse the resulting fires, the city pressed Congress hard to authorize what became and remains the only dam of any significance in a national park.

‘Grafters and Desecraters’

Congressman John E. Raker of Manteca carried the act to create the reservoir. Opposition came from San Joaquin Valley farmers, private utilities and " nature lovers,” and fills 100 pages of the Congressional Record. The presidents of Harvard University and Radcliff College were passionate in the opposition. “The grafters and desecraters are scheming against the rights of the people,” said one opponent from Sebastopool, quoted in the 1926 book “Hetch Hetchy.”

Then on Dec. 2, 1913, William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner produced a 16-page special edition filled with comments of support for the project. That was the “clincher,” the San Francisco Water & Power Department history of the system says. That day, the bill passed the Senate, and President Woodrow Wilson quickly signed it.

Muir died in 1914--"of a broken heart,” or so say those who followed him in the environmental movement.

By 1923, the dam was in place, at the time the largest such structure in the West. By 1934, the 170 miles of aqueduct through mountains, across the San Joaquin Valley and under San Francisco Bay was complete. In all the city paid $169 million to build it.

A few weeks back, when Hodel told him about the idea, National Parks Director William Penn Mott Jr. replied, “I think John Muir will jump out of his grave and applaud.” But Mott also said it would take a year and a half just to make a preliminary judgment on its feasibility. By then, a new president will have been elected.

Most elected officials remain skeptical that Hodel’s idea will ever become reality.


But McClosky does not necessarily share that skepticism. If the Sierra Club decides to make it one of its top priorities, McCloskey predicted, “We’d be much more competitive in the politics of the city than we were back in 1905 and 1910, and the issue would be decided by the country as a whole. . . . When these campaigns are nationalized, they tend to be hard fought and they tend to go against provincial interests.”