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?

Following retirement from 35 years of work in the mutual fund industry, George A. Miller went to the library "to have some structure in my life," he says. And there he stayed.

"After four years," he recalls, "I got kind of tired."

Miller had reason to feel weary. During four years as a volunteer clerk at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, he completed a journey through one of the more spectacular and unusual portions of western American history, that early 20th-century period when Imperial San Francisco dammed the Tuolumne (too-ALL-uh-may) River, filling the extraordinary Hetch Hetchy Valley with water, guaranteeing the city a pristine water supply, and breaking the heart of the father of the American environmental movement, John Muir. Hetch Hetchy, Muir believed, was the environmental twin of his treasured Yosemite Valley. During his library sojourn, Miller cataloged three connected caches of documents: the donated papers of legendary San Francisco City Engineer Michael O'Shaughnessy; another trove of records from the Spring Valley Water Co., which provided all of San Francisco's water from 1858 until the construction of the Hetch Hetchy system in 1922; and documents collected by the Tuolumne River Trust, an environmental group that obtained federal protection in 1984 for the Tuolumne River, which feeds the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

"When you sort through 350 boxes of stuff that nobody's ever looked at, you learn a lot," notes Miller, formerly president of Income Funds of America. "I read a lot of the history of how the creation of the Hetch Hetchy S.F. water system came about, going back to 1906, and the battles back and forth between Spring Valley and the city. I looked at a lot of photographs O'Shaughnessy took, including a 1915 Christmas card picture of the valley. I read a lot of his correspondence, his trip reports. You kind of feel like you know the guy.

"And I'm sitting at the Bancroft thinking, as I look at these photographs, 'This is a pretty good-looking valley.'"

Emerging from his hermitage, Miller decided to act. He made a large donation, said to total as much as $500,000, to fund a study aimed at showing that Hetch Hetchy Valley could be restored without any harm to San Francisco's water and electricity supplies, and at the relatively low cost of around $1.5 billion. The money would buy and build additional water-storage capacity for San Francisco downstream from the valley and compensate the city for electricity-generating capacity lost when some of the system's hydroelectric generators were dismantled. Miller's donation will also help facilitate a national media campaign aimed at pressuring San Francisco to release the 117 billion gallons of water in Hetch Hetchy Valley and expose the 1,900 acres Muir once called the "Tuolumne Yosemite."

Miller's is no ordinary flight of fancy by a wealthy philanthropist. Thanks to astute timing, influential allies, and the size of his donation, Miller has helped launch a crusade unmatched since John Muir's lifetime. By next year, millions of Americans will have heard the argument that San Francisco should restore Hetch Hetchy Valley.

The Environmental Defense Fund, the group conducting the study and campaign, is famous for its ability to focus national media attention on its crusades. The Sacramento Bee ran a weeklong series earlier this month with cooperation from the EDF. The series explored the premise that San Franciscans are environmental hypocrites for not draining the valley. A similar Timemagazine story dealing with the Hetch Hetchy theme is rumored to be in the works.

Two state legislators earlier this month asked Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to study restoring Hetch Hetchy.

Former Sierra Club president and current San Francisco Public Utilities Commissioner Adam Werbach says he hopes to nudge San Francisco in the direction of restoring the valley while the city spends $3.6 billion to seismically upgrade water storage and delivery components of the Hetch Hetchy system. "My belief is the draining of Hetch Hetchy is inevitable," Werbach said when I spoke with him last week. "It just is."

San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who two years ago pressured the city's PUC to cooperate with Environmental Defense researchers, says he would like to see another study on the issue, this one government-funded and unbiased. "I was saying, 'How can having the facts and science be harmful to us?'" Peskin says.

Perhaps most important, San Francisco public officials with the greatest influence over Hetch Hetchy's fate have been careful not to denounce the Environmental Defense campaign, even suggesting they're amenable to its stated goals.

"I understand Environmental Defense's position, and we will listen to them carefully," said Public Utilities Commissioner Dick Sklar, whom political insiders tip as the next president of the agency.

"The leaders of the Bay Area and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) are highly sympathetic to the well-meaning goals of those who advocate restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley," wrote SFPUC General Manager Susan Leal in a recent Sacramento Bee guest editorial. "We are extremely interested in these studies and their findings."

But there's trouble in restoring paradise. The very grandiosity of the Miller-funded Environmental Defense Fund campaign could prove its downfall.

The involvement of Environmental Defense -- a group noted for slick media campaigns, corporate alliances, and fund-raising tie-ins -- virtually guarantees the idea of restoring Hetch Hetchy a space in the American consciousness during coming months. But if Environmental Defense is known among magazine and newspaper readers for highly public environmental crusades, the group is notorious among environmentalist insiders for co-opting, and even undermining, the goals of other ecological preservation groups, and for bolstering EDF fund-raising prospects along the way.

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.

"People were asking, 'Are we going to continue with this as a priority?' But I saw to it that the committee remained," Werbach says.

Since stepping down as Sierra Club president in 1998, Werbach has made film documentaries chronicling such diverse events as the World Bank desecration of forests in southern Mexico and San Francisco's Noise Pop indie rock festival. He founded and leads a nonprofit called Common Assets, which is dedicated to preserving natural resources Americans hold in common. He writes articles for national magazines on environmental topics, and speaks on the same.

But nothing in Werbach's post-Sierra Club wunderkind life has raised nearly as much fuss as his appointment last year to San Francisco's Public Utilities Commission. As a courtesy, then-Mayor Willie Brown named firebrand Supervisor Chris Daly to what is usually viewed as the ceremonial post of interim mayor for a day while Brown was traveling. Daly used his day of mayoralty to swiftly appoint Werbach to the commission, supplanting Brown's choice for the position, the son of a campaign donor. This infuriated Brown and his allies and created newspaper headlines that for a week delighted everyone else. That furor died down long ago. (Among other things, the donor recently became the subject of an unrelated political money-laundering investigation.)

But a remarkable fact that didn't often get mentioned during last year's controversy remains: The former president of an organization spawned in the battle to preserve Hetch Hetchy Valley will now oversee the $3.6 billion overhaul of the water system that drowned it. That overhaul consists of 45 local and 35 regional construction projects to replace and seismically upgrade Hetch Hetchy's 80-year-old system of 11 reservoirs, two filtration plants, five pump stations, 60 miles of tunnels, and 280 miles of pipeline dedicated to carrying water across three major earthquake faults to San Francisco.

"When I was appointed, there were these immediate calls. And the first thought was, 'They're putting a Sierra Club president managing Hetch Hetchy?' The irony was not lost on me," says Werbach, whose boyish, self-effacing manner belies a precocious early adulthood.

Dramatic irony aside, Werbach's goals when it comes to Hetch Hetchy are surprisingly humble and bureaucratic-sounding. First, he'd like the PUC to consider the theoretical possibility that Hetch Hetchy might someday be drained as a potential scenario to be included in an environmental review that, by law, must be conducted before work on the $3.6 billion earthquake retrofit is to begin. "There's basically a number of actions that could be taken on the [retrofit] that will either increase or decrease the supply of water. Most are on the increase side. Increase the size of Calaveras Reservoir. Building a new pipeline increases supply of water. Draining Hetch Hetchy would decrease supply of water. What I will push for is to consider this as a contingency," Werbach says.

If he succeeds, environmentalists will obtain the independent, government-sponsored study of a Hetch Hetchy restoration that they've been pushing for since the Reagan era. Such a study would look at where, and how, San Francisco would store and transport water lost from Hetch Hetchy, where it would make up for lost power-generating capacity if turbines at O'Shaughnessy Dam were dismantled, and how much all this might cost.

The next step, Werbach says, is to advocate for infrastructure projects that would facilitate, but not require, the draining of Hetch Hetchy. San Francisco's water-system retrofit includes a proposal to build a dam, perhaps larger than O'Shaughnessy, to replace the earth dam at Calaveras Reservoir, which spreads across Santa Clara and Alameda counties. The more water stored in the new lake, the less that would be required in Hetch Hetchy. The plan also involves constructing an additional pipeline to draw water from the Tuolumne, and the greater its volume -- well, you get the idea.

"There is actually something to achieve right now, and it's probably not the draining of the lake. The thing to achieve is an environmental consensus that other expansions of capacity could be done that would eventually allow for the draining of the place," Werbach says.

If they are measured, they are grand plans, nonetheless. Just the same, Werbach's words lack the proselytical certainty one expects from a prominent conservationist. He insists I contact activists who oppose downstream reservoir expansion on the basis that it would ultimately decimate the Tuolumne River and nurture suburban sprawl. He sends me names and phone numbers and notes, on his own volition, that the environmental community is not united on Hetch Hetchy.

"I think the role of the PUC should be relatively agnostic. It needs to take the stance, 'If the public did decide [to drain Hetch Hetchy], this is what should happen, this is what we would need to restore it.'

"We don't want a third option, which is 'Fuck San Francisco.' That is an option that will come. If there's one thing I've learned in environmentalism, nationally initiated programs never work out in the interests of local communities."

To hear the first strains of Environmental Defense's campaign to restore Hetch Hetchy, ending John Muir's nightmare wouldn't be terribly difficult. Representatives of the group won't speak about their upcoming campaign for the record; the "Environmental Defense fights to restore Hetch Hetchy" story is "embargoed" until next week, a spokeswoman told me. A new EDF Web page, however, outlines the story's basic thrust, which will be announced in full at an Oakland press conference Monday, Sept. 27.

"Environmental Defense believes that water storage could be found farther downstream on the Tuolumne in existing reservoirs and at other off-stream sites. With help from leading industry consultants, Environmental Defense has developed a number of cost-effective solutions for delivering to Bay Area residents the same reliable supply of safe, high-quality water, without compromising a national park. We'll release our analysis, the most in-depth of its type, later this month.

"'There's no question that Hetch Hetchy Valley can be restored,' says our water analyst Spreck Rosekrans. 'We just need the vision of the American public to lead the way.'"

The Sacramento Bee echoed this sentiment in a series of 12 editorials and articles running from Aug. 12 through Sept. 22. The package's guiding sentiment was summed up in an Aug. 30 editorial titled "San Francisco's Paradox."

"Hetch Hetchy is San Francisco's great civic contradiction. While the city's environmental agenda spans the globe, it keeps a glacial valley locked away close to home," the editorial professed. "No longer would San Francisco be, as [David] Brower declared it years ago, the pirate with the stolen national treasure. Instead, a city that prides itself on environmentalism could set its sights on a new cause: restoring Hetch Hetchy, a public jewel close to home."

The Fresno Bee pitched in with a save-Hetch-Hetchy story of its own, stating that "the emotional sparks between outraged environmentalists and supposedly 'green' Bay Area politicos are as spectacular as they are ironic."

As a factual basis, the stories drew from what they referred to as a study by "UC Davis researchers" analyzing the possibility of draining Hetch Hetchy without severely restricting San Francisco's water supply. These proposed measures include rebuilding the Calaveras Reservoir in Santa Clara and Alameda counties; negotiating a new deal with irrigation districts in Turlock and Modesto, which control the Don Pedro Reservoir that now provides San Francisco with water; and paying off S.F. residents for loss of hydroelectric power, among other things.

Environmental Defense recommended I also look at "the UC Davis study," which, as it turns out, is actually a master's thesis written by a geography student named Sarah Null.

In addition, Environmental Defense turned my attention to a letter written by Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla (D-Pittsburg) to Gov. Schwarzenegger, suggesting a state-funded study on restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley. The Bee has written a story on Canciamilla's letter.

Neither Environmental Defense nor the Bee noted that Canciamilla has made a hobby of urging the state to meddle in San Francisco affairs. In April, Canciamilla introduced an Assembly resolution urging the state attorney general to take over S.F. District Attorney Kamala Harris' prosecution of a man accused of killing a San Francisco police officer, because Harris, exercising the prosecutorial discretion all district attorneys have, decided not to seek the death penalty. "The report that came out of UC Davis really raised a number of issues in terms of the ability of the various agencies to restore the valley," Canciamilla said in an interview, again referencing the master's thesis.

If Environmental Defense got this much mileage out of Canciamilla's antics and someone's master's project, I can only imagine how far the group will be able to get driving an actual half-million-dollar study.

The plan sounds simple. First, round up a herd of studies. A group called Restore Hetch Hetchy will release yet another one this winter; there are Werbach's proposed environmental review, Canciamilla's state study, and the Environmental Defense study. Take a mid-1980s study conducted by Ronald Reagan's interior secretary, Donald Hodel; that makes five. Next, pressure San Francisco, the federal government, state legislators, and the American people to tear down O'Shaughnessy Dam. Increase downstream storage, and pay San Francisco off for lost electricity revenue. All at a cost of around $1.5 billion, Environmental Defense reckons. Werbach suggests it would actually require another $500 million, to cover contingencies, for a total of $2 billion.

Then, the Paiute Indians' Hetch Hetchy grass sprouts again.

"I think the main thing is the right-brain issues -- the aesthetic issues. Getting people excited about the possibilities, then responding to the real engineering issues that need to be addressed," explains Ron Good, an earnest, unblinking man who has nurtured the drain-the-valley flame through his organization, Restore Hetch Hetchy, a spinoff from the old Sierra Club Hetch Hetchy task force. "This gives a rational basis for moving ahead, having a more independent look at this funded by local, state, federal, and private foundation sources, to get even more unbiased information from consulting engineers who will say, 'Yeah, there are issues out there, and you can address them in a rational way.'"

Four years ago, Good was leading a hiking tour to Wapama Falls, a Yosemite Falls-like cascade visible across the reservoir from the top of O'Shaughnessy Dam, when he ran into Larry Klein, the now-retired manager of the Hetch Hetchy water system.

"We got into this discussion about restoring Hetch Hetchy," Klein recalls. "I said, 'What are you going to do for power, water quality, water supply?' He gave me his answers, which aren't a whole lot different than they are now. I said, 'What about this, and this, and this?' He said, 'This isn't a problem.'"

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.

Still, it's almost impossible not to feel inspired by George Miller, John Muir, and Adam Werbach's strain of aesthetically motivated environmentalism, which focuses on preserving the most physically beautiful portions of the natural world. After all, it should be possible to devise a Hetch Hetchy restoration plan with few adverse environmental side effects, and with little financial harm to San Francisco, as long as the massive engineering and political problems a restoration would entail were dealt with straightforwardly.

Whether restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley costs $2 billion or $10 billion, it's really not a large amount in federal budget terms. San Francisco's currently constructing a 15-block subway tunnel that will likely cost around $1 billion. What's a few billion more to restore one of America's greatest natural treasures?

After all, "spending money is always good politics," Werbach wryly notes.

The real challenge for San Francisco, and its powerful congressional delegation, is to see the true value in restoring one of the most beautiful places in the universe, in spite of the upcoming Environmental Defense campaign.

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