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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?

Wednesday, Sep 22 2004
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 Time magazine 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.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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