Greens Call for Removing Dam to Restore Hetch Hetchy Valley

Environmentalists are calling the new campaign to remove Yosemite National Park’s O"Shaughnessy Dam and restore the majestic canyon of the Hetch Hetchy Valley "a piece of unfinished work that John Muir left to his heirs." The battle over whether to dam Hetch Hetchy for drinking water and hydropower a century ago transformed Muir’s Sierra Club into a political force to be reckoned with, even though dam proponents won out. Muir, who died a few years after the dam was constructed, had called the valley prior to its flooding "a grand landscape garden, one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples."

Hetch Hetchy Valley c. early 1900s

But these days, in the wake of some high-profile dam removals in Maine, Wisconsin and the Pacific Northwest, environmental groups such as Sierra Club and Environmental Defense have teamed up in an attempt to muster enough public sentiment and political will to bring down the O"Shaughnessy Dam once and for all. They admit it will be an uphill battle.

Recent studies have indicated that draining the reservoir created by the dam and replacing water storage capacity with expanded reservoirs downstream would be "technically feasible," but cost $3 billion to $10 billion. Most California lawmakers, including U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and now Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (who ordered a review of the dam removal proposals by the state’s water resources authority), have determined that the cost of removing the dam outweighs the benefits. They point out that state residents would not gain any practical benefits by removing the dam in terms of drinking water or electricity, while leaving it in place would cost nothing more than ongoing maintenance on existing infrastructure.

But environmentalists remain optimistic that they will prevail in the long term, and are trying to keep the issue on California’s political front burner while they gather public support for the idea. "Restoring Hetch Hetchy would allow us to recreate the natural experience as it should be—and once was," concludes Spreck Rosecranz of Environmental Defense.

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