Big Dam Mess

The Environmental Defense Fund embarks on a national campaign to shame San Francisco into restoring the other great Yosemite valley, Hetch Hetchy. But is shame really a good political strategy?

It's already clear, for example, that the EDF campaign will portray San Francisco and at least some of its environmentalists as hypocrites for spreading the green gospel around the world while drinking water and using electricity emanating from one of the worst desecrations of environmental splendor in history.


Many years ago, in a newly christened national park far from San Francisco, there was a breathtaking, glacier-carved valley the local Ahwahneechee and Paiute Indians called Hetch Hetchy, their word for a grass with edible seeds that grew abundantly there.

Back in San Francisco, a private company had gained control of local water sources and hamstrung supplies. In 1913 San Francisco city fathers, bent on creating a metropolis by the bay, sought congressional approval to flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley, piping water from it 160 miles to the west and providing San Francisco with a perpetual source of high-quality water and, subsequently, with significant amounts of hydroelectric power generated at the dam. Muir, who'd successfully campaigned to turn the surrounding wilderness into Yosemite National Park, vowed that environmentalists' angry letters would fall upon Congress as "thick as snowflakes" if it voted to ruin the valley.

"Dam Hetch Hetchy!" Muir wrote in a citation that has become restorationists' battle cry. "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."

Congress nonetheless voted in 1913 to allow San Francisco to flood the valley. The next year, Muir died, it is said, of a broken heart.

The upcoming crusade to restore Hetch Hetchy is shaping up to be a full-scale Environmental Defense Fund public relations campaign that will focus on the supposed indefensibility of the damming of Hetch Hetchy, and the supposed ease with which the dam could be removed. A PR flack for Environmental Defense made it plain to me that the group is shooting for America's major media outlets to carry the story of its Hetch Hetchy campaign.

But restoring Hetch Hetchy is an extraordinarily complicated proposition that the incipient media campaign appears poised to paint as a walk in a national park.

Modern California -- its cities, its farms, and its undeveloped areas -- exists as it does because of hundreds of individual, sometimes overlapping water wars waged during the past 150 years. Renegotiating age-old water contracts, accounting for lost power-generating capacity, reconfiguring dams, canals, tunnels, aqueducts, and reservoirs, and extracting billions of dollars from the federal budget are complicated propositions. Yet according to the EDF Web site, the group will claim those changes aren't as difficult as they might seem. According to a person I spoke with who has worked closely with the EDF on this project, it can all be accomplished for as little as $1.5 billion.

But it's unclear to me how a nationally based PR campaign aimed at "The American People" (to quote Environmental Defense's Web site) will persuade San Francisco public officials to tear down what they consider to be the civic crown jewel. Sure, there's the possibility that Congress might overturn the 1913 law that allowed San Francisco to flood the valley. But that would require getting around House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who's long shown deep commitment to getting and keeping federal pork for San Francisco, and California's senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, who while mayor 15 years ago won a crusade to stop the Reagan administration from tearing down the dam.

There exist San Francisco local officials -- ones who actually have direct influence over Hetch Hetchy -- who have already stuck their necks out to support steps that might someday lead to restoring John Muir's favored valley. But they could find themselves smothered in backlash if there's a national, San Franciscans-are-environmental-hypocrites media barrage of the likes that appeared in the Sacramento Beetwo weeks ago.

"To the extent San Francisco is forced into a corner, and is forced to man the ramparts, then it's not helpful," says Peskin, who two years ago used his post as supervisor to compel the PUC to cooperate in the EDF study. At that time, he says, "A lot of folks were saying, 'Aaron, what are you doing?' It was like I was questioning God and country."

Werbach, who believes flooding Hetch Hetchy Valley was one of the greatest environmental tragedies in the history of the United States, is nonetheless wary of joining this battle with Environmental Defense at his side.

"I'm torn. I've been greatly critical right in their faces," Werbach says. "I tell them, 'You've got to think about San Francisco in this.'"

Because San Francisco is where any story about Hetch Hetchy begins and ends.


"I remember when I first got into the Sierra Club, I found out about John Muir's battle over Hetch Hetchy," says Werbach, who in 1996, at age 23, became the youngest president in the history of the organization Muir founded more than a century earlier. "My very first job at the Sierra Club was to reorganize committees. There was a push to disband the Restore Hetch Hetchy Committee. They had been giving that committee $1,000 a year for 70 years. First, there was a question of whether it was still club policy; was it still the policy to drain it? There was some out-loud question about that. Then, there was the question of whether it was a good time. This was during a financial downturn.

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