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In California, a wide chasm over Hetch Hetchy Valley

San Francisco resists pressure to dismantle dam

HETCH HETCHY VALLEY, Calif. -- When the naturalist John Muir came upon this valley of meadows, waterfalls, and granite peaks a century ago, he beheld a grand landscape he described as ''one of nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples." Muir, a founder of the Sierra Club, declared the Hetch Hetchy Valley as Yosemite's twin.

For generations, the floor of this narrow canyon has been submerged under 300 feet of water, behind a dam that stores the drinking supply of hundreds of thousands of San Francisco Bay Area residents and helps generate the electricity that powers San Francisco's famed cable cars, buses, street lights, schools, and one of the country's busiest airports.

Until his death in 1914, a year after Congress approved the dam's construction, Muir crusaded against flooding the Hetch Hetchy Valley, located within the wilderness of Yosemite National Park and 20 miles north of the heavily visited Yosemite Valley.

But a century after the first debates arose, another push has emerged seeking to drain the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, returning the valley floor to its natural state and allowing the upper Tuolomne River to again meander.

''All these rocks, everything John Muir saw, are just holding their breath, waiting to come back up to the surface, waiting to come back up for air. It was a beautiful valley, and it will be again," said Ron Good, a former staff counsel of the Sierra Club and now the executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy, one of several groups seeking to bring back the valley.

Once considered a radical notion, the campaign to restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley gained further legitimacy last fall when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered the state's Resources Agency to review the issue, after being prompted by requests from two Northern California legislators and a series of editorials by the Sacramento Bee on reclaiming the valley. The editorials later won the Pulitzer Prize.

With San Francisco poised to undertake a $4.3 billion overhaul of an antiquated water-delivery system that stretches 160 miles from the Sierra Nevada to the Silicon Valley, advocates for restoring the Hetch Hetchy argue that now is the perfect time for San Francisco to broach the topic of possibly breaching the dam.

City officials, however, have expressed little interest. Giving up the reservoir could mean the loss of the vital resources and valuable commodities, namely water and electricity, that helped transform San Francisco into one of the world's most robust economies.

''Why would it be in the best interest of our customers and ratepayers to study the loss of our most important source of water and clean power?" said Tony Winnicker, spokesman for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which operates the dam.

The state's report, due this fall, isn't expected to break new ground, but could provide an outline for delving deeper into many of the unknowns, including a comprehensive look into the cost of undertaking such a massive restoration project, which by all accounts would be the most ambitious, and certainly most controversial, proposal in a nationwide push by some environmentalists to remove man-made obstacles in the flow of some of the country's rivers.

''We've been asked to come in and look at a contentious natural resource issue, and we've come in as a neutral party to give an objective view," said Gary Bardini, the Hetch Hetchy project manager for the state Department of Water Resources.

Over the years, four studies have been produced, including one by the Interior Department during the Reagan administration and more recent efforts by environmental advocates.

The state's charge is to review the existing studies, none of which has given a complete picture, Bardini said. ''This would be a very ambitious restoration project. There isn't enough . . . information to make an informed decision."

Aaron Peskin, the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, wouldn't rule out punching through the dam, which was completed in 1923. Mayor Gavin Newsom hasn't either. But most San Francisco officials say there are still too many answered questions and too many details missing from proposals being offered by restoration advocates.

''The challenge of restoring Hetch Hetchy still has a long way to go," said Peskin, who called himself a ''dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist."

''When you find me the billion and half dollars that it's going to cost to produce us the hydro and give us this cleanest source of water, I'm willing to have the conversation with you," Peskin said during a July appearance at the Commonwealth Club, a public affairs forum.

The actual cost of a restoration project is under debate, with numbers ranging from as low as $1 billion to as much as $9 billion -- and perhaps more, according to some city officials.

Environmental Defense, which released a study last fall, said the endeavor would cost less than $2 billion, far less than the city suggests. But the advocacy group acknowledges that many factors are missing from its calculation, including the cost of dismantling the dam.

The study contends that there is enough room in the San Francisco's eight other reservoirs, including one just below the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, to accommodate the city's water needs. The study also concluded that energy conservation could address the possible loss in power generation.

City officials and many of its water customers, however, are unconvinced and unwilling to launch a study of their own.

''We just don't think it's a good use of our resources. But we don't have a problem with other people studying it," said Winnicker, of the utilities commission.

Muir, widely considered the father of environmental activism in this country, stands tall in the state's folklore and in the state's environmental history. Muir, along with Yosemite's Half Dome rock, is featured prominently on the back of the state quarter.

His descriptions of the Hetch Hetchy Valley have captivated generations of activists, all of whom have never laid eyes on the spread of wildflowers and tall hetch hetchy grasses, from which the valley gets its name.

While the valley floor is no longer visible, much of Hetch Hetchy's scenery is still in plain sight, city officials note: cascading waterfalls splashing against sheer granite cliffs, and rock formations that resemble the Yosemite Valley's famous Half Dome and El Capitan.

If the state finds merit in pursuing a comprehensive study, state funds will be sought to pay for it, said Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, who helped get the Schwarzenegger administration to undertake a review.

''Restoring a national treasure such as Hetch Hetchy would be a significant opportunity," Wolk said.

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