After the great 1906 earthquake, searching for reliable power and drinking water, San Francisco looked at the soaring granite of Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley and saw walls for a reservoir.
Conservationists like John Muir were appalled that anyone might flood what he called “a grand landscape garden, one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples.”
But after one of the country’s first major environmental battles — a struggle that transformed Muir’s Sierra Club into a political force — the O’Shaughnessy Dam was completed in 1923.
Today, even as the Hetch Hetchy system delivers some of the country’s highest quality drinking water to 2.4 million Bay Area residents, environmentalists continue to argue for restoring the valley — a debate that was intensified in July when a state review found that the job would be “technically feasible” for an estimated $3 billion to $10 billion.
Conservationists see an opportunity to restore what Muir called a “wonderfully exact counterpart” to Yosemite Valley, the park’s more famous attraction, known for towering monuments like El Capitan, as well as its clogged campgrounds and roadways.
They say it’s possible to dismantle the 312-foot concrete dam, replace the lost water storage downstream on the Tuolumne River and find other sources of clean electricity.
“Restoring Hetch Hetchy would allow us to recreate the natural experience as it should be — and once was,” said Spreck Rosecranz, an analyst for the conservation group Environmental Defense.
The city and others political leaders, however, pounced on the multibillion-dollar cost estimate.
They also argue that the project would compromise the Bay Area’s water supply when California needs more water storage and electricity, not less, given its growing population and predictions that global warming could lead to more droughts and melting snowpack.
What’s more, they say, Yosemite’s visitors enjoy the valley’s dramatic landscape and 7-mile-long reservoir just as they are now.
“It’s a real misplaced priority,” said Susan Leal, general manager of the Public Utilities Commission that manages the Hetch Hetchy water system.
Restoration also would require congressional backing because Yosemite is a national park, and the idea has little support from federal lawmakers.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor, said the new study confirmed the project is “unwarranted and the cost is indefensible, particularly given the tremendous infrastructure needs facing our state.”
The latest restoration push began in 2001 when San Francisco began planning a $4.3 billion upgrade of the Hetch Hetchy system.
Governor ordered review
Studies by the University of California at Davis and Environmental Defense each argued that it was possible to drain the reservoir and replace most of the water storage capacity with expanded reservoirs downstream. They projected that native plants and animals would return to the valley floor within years.
Those studies — and a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning editorials by the Sacramento Bee — prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to order the state Department of Water Resources to review the previous restoration studies.
The state report concluded that more extensive studies were needed to get a better cost estimate, but any further exploration must involve local, state and federal agencies and stakeholders.
Bruce Hamilton, the Sierra Club’s conservation director, acknowledged that overcoming the political opposition will take a long time. But, he said, “It’s a piece of unfinished work that John Muir left to his heirs.”
Today, Hetch Hetchy Valley attracts more than 50,000 visitors a year who can walk across the O’Shaughnessy Dam, hike around the reservoir and get away from the 3 million visitors who clog neighboring Yosemite Valley’s roads and campgrounds each year.
Deborah Huber, a retired Colorado teacher who visited Hetch Hetchy in July with her husband and friends, didn’t see a problem with the reservoir.
“I think it’s beautiful with the lake, but I bet it was beautiful without it,” Huber said, standing on the giant dam. “If it was restored to something like Yosemite Valley, it would be overcrowded, too.”