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Funds for study of restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley face long odds

WASHINGTON—The Bush administration's quiet request for $7 million to study restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley—which Sierra Club founder John Muir dubbed "Yosemite's twin"—keeps a controversy flowing, but probably not for long.

This week, the administration slid the Hetch Hetchy study money into its overall Interior Department budget proposal. If Congress approves it, it would pay for research into the environmental and economic consequences of removing Hetch Hetchy's O'Shaughnessy Dam.

"We are extremely pleased that the federal government has seen fit to become a full partner with California in the Hetch Hetchy restoration-study process," said Ron Good, the executive director of the Sonora, Calif., organization Restore Hetch Hetchy.

Almost certainly, the pleasure will be short-lived.

"It's dead on arrival," Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., said Wednesday. "It's a complete surprise, and I don't support one bit of it."

Hetch Hetchy Valley broke Muir's heart. He bitterly fought San Francisco's plans to flood the valley for a reservoir, finally losing when Congress passed a 1913 law. Ever since, environmentalists—and others—periodically have suggested removing the dam.

Fifteen miles north of Yosemite Valley, the original Hetch Hetchy Valley was known for magnificent waterfalls and high-rising cliffs. Now, the Tuolumne River, which once flowed freely through it, is backed up for one of California's 19 reservoirs.

Radanovich, who represents Yosemite, said Bush administration officials didn't consult him. He's not happy about that. Now, he said, he wants to find out who the administration did consult with.

Another prominent skeptic of the Hetch Hetchy proposal chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee panel that funds the Interior Department. A former mayor of San Francisco, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein dismissed the prospects of draining the reservoir that's served the city since the dam was completed in 1923.

"I will do all I can to make sure it isn't included in the final bill," Feinstein promised in a prepared statement. "We're not going to remove this dam, and the funding is unnecessary."

Although Yosemite National Park officials had heard earlier rumors of the study, they also weren't directly consulted about the proposal. They learned for sure when the budget was released Monday.

Asked for a further assessment of the proposal Wednesday, the National Park Service offered only Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's comment that the $7 million would allow "discussions with the state of California."

The administration says it wants to build on preliminary Hetch Hetchy research that's already been conducted in California. That doesn't persuade skeptics.

"The state has done the analysis," Feinstein said. "It would cost between $3 billion and $10 billion to remove a dam that provides clean drinking water for 3 million people."

Completed last year, the California Resources Agency's 68-page study of Hetch Hetchy concluded that "much work remains to be done" in answering crucial questions, including how the 312-foot-high dam would be removed, how the water and power would be replaced and how to count the economic benefits of a restored Hetch Hetchy Valley.

"It is clear that further investigations into Hetch Hetchy Valley restoration cannot be led by the state of California alone," the agency said.

The state report estimated that it would take $7 million—the amount that the Bush administration now seeks—for a "conceptual" study and another $13 million for a further "reconnaissance"-level study.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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