Planet Earth News: Protecting O’Shaugnessy Dam in Yosemite National Park

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PHOTO: SIERRA CLUB, WILLIAM E. COLBY MEMORIAL LIBRARY
John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, in Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Environmental planet earth news brief about Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel’s suggestion to tear down O’Shaugnessy Dam in Yosemite National Park.

Environmental Planet Earth News

Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel stunned California
environmentalists and politicians August 6 when he
suggested tearing down O’Shaugnessy Dam in Yosemite
National Park. Hodel, who has been harshly criticized by
environmental leaders for insensitivity to the natural
landscape, is said to have dreamed up the idea on his own.

The most intemperate reaction came from Dianne Feinstein,
mayor of San Francisco.

“The worst idea since selling arms to Iran,” she railed.
The Sierra Club praised the idea, saying that the dam in
Hetch Hetchy Valley was the oldest blot on the national
park system.

Other environmentalists were skeptical of Mr. Hodel’s
motives, wondering, for example, if he was hoping to
deflect the public’s attention from ecological concerns in
Alaska long enough for him to persuade Congress to let
oilmen into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The San Francisco newspapers were quick to judge the
proposal. “Hands off, Mr. Secretary,” warned the
Chronicle . “The best argument yet for drug
testing of federal employees,” thundered the
Examiner .

To understand the reactions of Ms. Feinstein and the local
press, one must realize that by virtue of heroic wheeling
and dealing in the first part of this century, the city of
San Francisco owns one of the sweetest deals for water and
power of any city in the land. Enshrined in a law known as
the Rak er Act, San Francisco has rights to a fair fraction
of the pure, sweet water that flows down the Tuolumne River
from the Yosemite high country. The city also operates
several power plants on the river, which earned it a tidy
profit of $50 million last year.

But let’s stop and think about this for a minute. What
right does a city have to defile a national park the way
San Francisco does with this benighted reservoir? If the
city–any city–tried to build a dam in the
middle of a national park today, it would be run out of
town. Mr. Hodel’s motives may be other than he says they
are, but that doesn’t make the idea a bad one.

Indeed, conservationists have advocated demolishing Hetch
Hetchy dam for decades. And most important, it seems to me,
is a very curious if unspoken assumption in all this: that
dams create water. Put that way, it is ridiculous,
of course. But that’s what Mayor Feinstein and the others
are saying when they scream that tearing down the dam will
deprive San Francisco of its water supply.

Water flows from the sky as rain and snow, runs down hills
and cliffs and winds up in a river. It will keep doing so
as long as it keeps raining, dam or no dam. What’s more,
San Francisco doesn’t take its water from the river at
Hetch Hetchy anyway: Its intake pipes are below the
Moccasin Creek Power Station 40 miles downstream.

And what an absolutely magnificent idea! Hetch Hetchy
Valley was a near carbon copy of Yosemite Valley. The dam
that drowned the valley and killed the river is said to
have killed John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, as
well. What a splendid monument to the environmental sanity
that is finally beginning to dawn on this country to remove
that wretched concrete plug and watch as nature slowly
reclaims its own.

Tom Turner, a writer and editor who’s worked in the
environmental field for 17 years, is with the Sierra Club
Legal Defense Fund, an independent environmental law firm
that represents many organizations across the country. It is
supported principally by private donations. For more
information, write Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, San Francisco, CA.