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?

From a firsthand engineering point of view, Klein says, dismantling O'Shaughnessy Dam without perturbing San Francisco is an extraordinarily complicated proposition. As both engineers and politicians know, you can solve almost any problem as long as you throw enough money at it. Engineering and political problems associated with restoring Hetch Hetchy could cost billions of dollars.

The idea of moving the water downstream to Don Pedro Dam sounds simple; that reservoir is far larger than Hetch Hetchy's and sits a third empty. But, Klein notes, San Francisco has "no ownership rights to that water." To store Hetch Hetchy water at Don Pedro, some kind of bargain -- a very expensive bargain, most likely -- would have to be worked out with the Turlock and Modesto water districts, which Don Pedro Dam serves.

Some have proposed raising the water level of the Don Pedro Reservoir, but this would increase flood danger. But, Klein says, "You can't raise the dam -- they put the optimum-size dam where they put it. Otherwise, you'd have to put side dams all along the river," says Klein, noting that as rising water from a newly raised dam backed up along upstream canyons, there would need to be something in place to keep it from escaping and flooding excessive amounts of land. "To increase storage without eating into the flood reservation, you would have to put curtain dams in all the side canyons along the Tuolumne," Klein notes.

Assuming these issues were overcome, Klein says, "any water they took out of there would have to go through a brand-new filter plant to remove microbes and things of this sort. When this came up earlier, [the plant] was put at half a billion dollars, plus half a billion dollars to run it," Klein recalls.

Another technical problem with draining Hetch Hetchy involves gravity. A significant portion of the pressure that pushes Hetch Hetchy water westward is generated by its location in the Sierra Nevada. "They talk about a pump that would take water out of Don Pedro. It would have to be a huge pump, because the water that comes to the city, that comes out of Moccasin Reservoir [near Hetch Hetchy], that's 150 feet higher, and that's really a huge pump," Klein says.

Significant expansion of the Calaveras Dam, and increasing the amount of water stored behind it, runs up against the fact that the Calaveras Reservoir sits on the Hayward earthquake fault. The more water impounded there, the more that would flood surrounding Alameda and Santa Clara counties in the event of a disastrous earthquake.

Then there's the issue of San Francisco's historical political disdain for the idea of removing what many call the city's civic jewel. When Interior Secretary Don Hodel in 1987 undertook a campaign to dismantle O'Shaughnessy Dam, then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein flew to Washington and battled ferociously to halt the project.

"What more fun than for a Republican to toss a grenade into a Democratic city," Klein says.

The San Francisco City Attorney's Office went to work, producing legal theories and cost estimates on how San Francisco might be made whole if the federal government forced the dismantling of the dam. "They generated all sorts of papers, estimates, and legal theories, where [the federal government would] have to buy the city out from under $2 billion to $5 billion in investments in Hetch Hetchy," Klein recalls.

That's $5 billion in 1987 dollars.

Standing atop O'Shaughnessy Dam, next to the drinking fountain there that spouts pristine, granite-filtered Hetch Hetchy water, and gazing across the smooth lake's surface to the cliffs on either side of Wapama Falls, it's hard not to get a case of the willies. Of all the monuments to civic might that I've seen -- skyscrapers, bridges, freeway cloverleafs -- none offers as poignant an illustration of the dominion a few city fathers can have over nature as that quiet, isolated reservoir. I didn't spend years in the Bancroft Library with George Miller, but I've seen sepia photographs of tall grass meadows, a meandering Sierra Nevada stream, scattered conifer groves, interrupted by thousand-foot veined granite terraces, and felt a thrill.

When I first heard Adam Werbach say he believes draining Hetch Hetchy is "inevitable," it sounded as if he were incanting a strain of environmental mysticism. After looking at old photographs for this story and recollecting my afternoon four years ago spent staring at the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, I realize Werbach is stating a simple, logical imperative derived from viewing Michael O'Shaughnessy's legacy.

But the minute one leaves the dam and makes one's way back alongside Hetch Hetchy's aqueducts and pipelines and into California's Central Valley, the simple logic muddles. Proponents of a Hetch Hetchy restoration posit the overturning of a 1913 law that guarantees San Francisco certain rights to Sierra Nevada water. But reasonable people hold a legitimate fear that removing this law would force San Francisco to vie for water on equal footing with other California municipalities. Hetch Hetchy restorationists propose expanding downstream storage facilities, allowing the O'Shaughnessy Dam to be dismantled. Yet some environmentalists believe, reasonably, that such a move would only provide more water to communities outside San Francisco, further enabling the sprawl development that every year ruins several Hetch Hetchys' worth of natural habitat.

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