For decades, an unlikely alliance of environmentalists and Republican officials has pushed for draining Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park, a prime source of water and power for the city of San Francisco.
They’re nowhere near achieving their goal: blowing a hole in 89-year-old O’Shaughnessy Dam on the Tuolumne River and restoring a High Sierra valley that John Muir described as a gorgeous twin to Yosemite itself.
Nevertheless, they’ve made progress promoting what opponents long derided as a crackpot idea.
The issue has been debated in Congress. In editorials, The New York Times and the Sacramento Bee have written approvingly of the idea. An initiative on San Francisco’s November ballot would require the city to create a new master plan for the water system based on draining the reservoir and returning Hetch Hetchy to the park service.
But none of that is providing political traction this election year for a conservative Republican who signed on to this environmental cause more than 20 years ago – Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Golden River.
Lungren is locked in a tough re-election contest in his Sacramento-area district with Democrat Dr. Ami Bera, an Elk Grove physician. Bera, who almost beat Lungren two years ago, has scooped up endorsements from the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.
Meanwhile, Lungren began the campaign with an environmental rating of 9 percent on the League of Conservation Voters’ congressional scorecard.
And while Lungren insists he is sincere about wanting to create a “second Yosemite” in Hetch Hetchy Valley, Democrats claim he is mainly interested in needling Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Although proponents say the city’s water supply could be guaranteed by expanding other reservoirs, the two powerful San Francisco Democrats say the plan would be a disaster, leaving the city vulnerable to drought and blackouts.
“It’s very transparent” that Lungren’s professed interest in Hetch Hetchy is a political ploy, contended Josh Wolf, spokesman for Bera.
“Nothing in his past shows him to care even a little bit about environmental issues,” Wolf said of Lungren. Hetch Hetchy will have “a minor effect on the race because no one believes he cares about the environment,” Wolf said.
Lungren is not concerned about the Sierra Club’s endorsement going to Bera, said Lungren's campaign manager Jeff Wyly.
The race will probably turn on economic issues, he said. He asserted that the major environmental groups inevitably line up with Democrats in political campaigns, anyway.
“What we would say is, if you really look at Congressman Lungren’s record over the years, he is much more of a moderate Republican when it comes to environmental issues,” Wyly said.
San Francisco interests began pushing for a dam in Hetch Hetchy after the city burned to the ground in the great 1906 earthquake and fire, a catastrophe blamed in part on the unreliable water system. Congressional approval was required because the dam site was within the boundary of Yosemite National Park.
The proposal was bitterly opposed by the Sierra Club, led in those days by Muir himself. Hetch Hetchy, at the foot of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, was “one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples,” he declared.
But in 1913, after intense debate, Congress gave the city the go-ahead.
The dam was completed in 1921, then raised to its present height of 364 feet in 1938. Eight miles of Alpine meadows were flooded.
Today, Hetch Hetchy is one of nine reservoirs supplying San Francisco and other bay cities with water. It’s also a significant source of hydroelectric power.
Over the years, it’s been an economic driver for the Bay Area region – an “invaluable” source of reliable water and energy, as Jim Wunderman, president of the Bay Area Council business group, wrote in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle.
But as early as 1955, environmental leader David Brower was urging the demolition of the dam, says Mike Marshall, executive director of the Restore Hetch Hetchy advocacy group, a proponent of the San Francisco ballot measure.
The first prominent official to embrace the idea was a Republican: Donald Hodel, secretary of the interior during President Ronald Reagan’s second term, suggested a study of the issue in 1987.
Then, as now, some environmentalists – and many Democrats – were suspicious. As Sierra Club leader Carl Pope wrote, some thought Hodel wanted to drive a wedge between environmental groups and the Northern California Democrats who are their traditional allies.
For his part, Hodel said he was searching for a way to restore a national treasure while guaranteeing San Francisco the water and power it needed. As he later wrote, he was surprised by the intensely negative reaction – a “firestorm,” he called it – led by Feinstein, then San Francisco’s mayor.
Lungren, who in those days represented Long Beach in Congress, met with Hodel, said Wyly, Lungren’s spokesman.
Hodel asked, “How would you like to have a second Yosemite?” and Lungren was struck with the idea, the spokesman said.
In the years since then, he has repeatedly raised the issue, often getting a sharp response from Northern California Democrats.
In 2011, Lungren asked the U.S. Interior Department to investigate San Francisco for alleged violations of the Raker Act, the law that authorized the dam. Although the law requires the city to tap other water resources before exporting water from the Sierra, the city doesn’t practice water recycling or draw water from wells, Lungren wrote.
He asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to go to court to force the city to comply with the law.
The city responded that it already was in full compliance. Feinstein wrote her own letter to Salazar saying that the idea of breaching the dam “makes no sense.”
Lungren wrote to Salazar after a meeting with the Restore Hetch Hetchy group, said Marshall, the group's director.
The environmentalist said he came away from the conversation with the conservative Republican convinced that “Yosemite has a big place in his heart."
“He told me, ‘I love dams, I just don’t think we should have dams in our national parks,’ ” Marshall said of Lungren. Of Hetch Hetchy, the lawmaker said, “Won’t it be a great legacy to restore it?” Marshall said.
Nevertheless, Lungren isn’t involved in the San Francisco initiative: “He hasn’t endorsed it,” Marshall said.
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This story was produced by California Watch, a part of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.californiawatch.org.