Environmental group targets restore Hetch Hetchy lawmaker

Sierra Club says Dan Lungren’s Hetch Hetchy love is far removed from his terrible environmental record

Hetch Hetchy, a reservoir for the Bay Area since 1923, is one thing the Sierra Club and Congressman Dan Lungren can agree on.

Hetch Hetchy, a reservoir for the Bay Area since 1923, is one thing the Sierra Club and Congressman Dan Lungren can agree on.

The Sierra Club is spending $625,000 to defeat a Republican lawmaker who has championed one of the environmental organization’s most cherished goals: draining the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park.

Campaign-finance reports show that in September, the Sierra Club Independent Action super PAC made several expenditures targeting U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren of Gold River, who is locked in a tight race against Elk Grove Democrat Dr. Ami Bera.

The club is paying for a hard-edged series of TV commercials and mailers here in the Sacramento area. The ads accuse Lungren of “selling out California” and practicing “oily politics,” claiming he favors tax breaks for oil companies and offshore oil drilling.

Oddly, Lungren is one of a handful of officials who has backed the Sierra Club’s long campaign to breach the O’Shaughnessy Dam on the Tuolumne River and restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley in the Sierra Nevada. Sierra Club founder John Muir wrote that the 8-mile-long alpine valley was almost as beautiful as Yosemite itself. It was inundated 89 years ago to provide water and hydroelectric power for San Francisco.

For decades, the Sierra Club has lobbied to restore Hetch Hetchy.

The Sierra Club believes that Lungren’s support for restoring Hetch Hetchy is outweighed by his support for “the toxic agenda of the big polluters,” national political director Cathy Duvall said in a statement.

“Though Lungren is on the right side on Hetch Hetchy, on nearly every other issue he’s with big polluters,” she wrote.

Lungren campaign manager Jeff Wyly called the club’s campaign against the lawmaker misleading and unfair.

Josh Wolf, Bera’s campaign manager, said the Sierra Club had sized up Lungren correctly.

“His environmental record is terrible, and they know that,” he said.

Lungren became interested in restoring Hetch Hetchy while serving in Congress during the Reagan administration.

In 1987, then-Interior Secretary Donald Hodel proposed studying the idea, saying he hoped to create a priceless “second Yosemite” for the nation.

Then and now, the idea was bitterly opposed by San Francisco’s Democratic political leadership. Officials including Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have warned that draining the reservoir would result in blackouts and water shortages.

Some environmentalists suspect that Hodel and other Republicans who promote breaching the dam hoped to stir up trouble between Northern California Democrats and the environmental groups with whom they often are allied.

At any rate, Lungren has raised the idea of reclaiming the mountain valley repeatedly over his political career.

Lungren is sincere, Mike Marshall, executive director of the Restore Hetch Hetchy environmental organization, told California Watch earlier this year.

“Yosemite has a big place in his heart,” Marshall said at the time; he declined to comment for this story.

Depending on what happens elsewhere in the country, control of Congress could turn on whether Lungren holds onto his seat. According to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, more than a dozen committees—liberal and conservative—are running independent expenditure campaigns in the race. By law, these committees can collect and spend unlimited amounts of campaign cash as long as they don’t coordinate their efforts with any candidate.

The biggest independent campaign to beat Lungren is run by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, which has spent $800,000. Other anti-Lungren expenditures include the Service Employees International Union (about $203,000), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (about $314,000), and two liberal super PACs: the House Majority PAC (about $270,000) and Friends of Democracy (about $180,000).

Campaigns to defeat Bera are being run by the National Republican Congressional Committee (nearly $638,000) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ($490,000).

The National Journal’s Hotline on Call political blog has reported that the U.S. Chamber intends to pump another $484,000 into the race.