Despite Opposition, Greens Push for Restoration of Yosemite Valley

With its soaring granite walls and spouting waterfalls, Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley was described by conservationist John Muir as "a grand landscape garden, one of Nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples."

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — With its soaring granite walls and spouting waterfalls, Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley was described by conservationist John Muir as "a grand landscape garden, one of Nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples."

Much of the glacially carved valley now lies under 300 feet (90 meters) of water. It was dammed and flooded more than 80 years ago to supply drinking water and hydropower to the San Francisco Bay area.

For years, environmentalists have advocated draining the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and returning the valley to its original splendor, while opponents say that would cost a bundle at a time when California needs all the water and electricity it can get.

A recent study by the state Department of Water Resources has intensified the debate.

The report found that the project was "technically feasible" -- and backers of the dismantling cheered. But opponents pounced on the estimated price tag of $3 billion (euro2.35 billion) to $10 billion (euro7.82 billion) -- a figure supporters dispute as inflated.

Conservationists see an opportunity to restore what Muir called a "wonderfully exact counterpart" to Yosemite Valley, the national park's most famous attraction, known for towering granite monuments like El Capitan and Half Dome.

They say it is possible to dismantle the O'Shaughnessy Dam, replace the lost water storage downstream on the Tuolumne River and find other sources of clean electricity.

"We could create a better Yosemite Valley," said Spreck Rosecranz, an analyst for the conservation group Environmental Defense, looking out over the serene reservoir behind the 312-foot (94-meter) concrete dam. "Restoring Hetch Hetchy would allow us to recreate the natural experience as it should be -- and once was."

But the campaign faces stiff resistance. Opponents say the project would compromise the Bay Area's water supply and California has more pressing infrastructure needs. What is more, they say, visitors today can still enjoy the 7-mile(11-kilometer)-long reservoir and its dramatic landscape.

Two state Assembly members -- Democrats Lois Wolk and Joe Canciamilla -- are looking for ways to fund more in-depth studies.

"We need to move forward with the next level of analysis," Canciamilla said. "This is a unique part of California. Before we say 'No, we can't do it,' we should have a real understanding of what it would take to potentially restore the valley."

But officials in San Francisco, including Mayor Gavin Newsom and the Public Utilities Commission that manages the Hetch Hetchy water system, remain strongly opposed.

Susan Leal, the commission's general manager, said California needs more water storage and electricity, not less, given the state's growing population and predictions that global warming could lead to more droughts and melting snowpack.

"The proposal doesn't make sense," Leal said. "I think it's a real misplaced priority."

Restoring Hetch Hetchy also would require the federal government's backing since Yosemite is a national park, but the idea has gotten little support from federal lawmakers.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor, said the study confirmed the project is "unwarranted and the cost is indefensible, particularly given the tremendous infrastructure needs facing our state."

An earlier generation of conservationists fought the damming of Hetch Hetchy. Muir led the opposition in one of the country's first major environmental battles -- a struggle that transformed the Sierra Club into a political force.

The Sierra Club founder was reportedly heartbroken when President Woodrow Wilson signed the 1913 Raker Act allowing San Francisco, which was seeking a stable source of water and electricity after the 1906 earthquake, to build the reservoir. Muir died a year later, and the dam was completed in 1923.

"It's a piece of unfinished work that John Muir left to his heirs," said Bruce Hamilton, the Sierra Club's conservation director. "We realize this is a campaign that will take a long time because there is such fierce political opposition to it."

Hetch Hetchy Valley now 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 throngs who clog Yosemite Valley's roads and campgrounds.

Deborah Huber, a retired Colorado teacher who visited Hetch Hetchy in July with her husband and friends, did not 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. "(But) if it was restored to something like Yosemite Valley, it would be overcrowded, too."

Source: Associated Press

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