Hetch Hetchy / The Controversy

The Hetch Hetchy Valley on the northwest corner of beautiful Yosemite National Park was one of the most historic sites in California and for a variety of reasons. If you have studied the life and work of John Muir, arguably America’s premiere preservationist, then you know that Yosemite was one of his favorite places on earth. Many may recall the photo of John Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt overlooking Yosemite. Interestingly enough, while Roosevelt and Muir were on very friendly terms during the president’s early years, there was coolness in that relationship later due to the fact that Roosevelt and his administration were more conservationists than pure preservationists.

hetch hetchy dam site

Site of O'Shaughnessy Dam prior to it being constructed

At one time there was a Hetch Hetchy Valley.The name originates with the native Americans of the region. The Hetch Hetchy Valley was a granite lined canyon with waterfalls and forests. That was the time before the O’Shaughnessy Dam was constructed. The story of this dam involved years of debate starting in 1906 with John Muir and other preservationists prominently involved. On the other side of the debate as to whether to build a dam or not involved the city of San Francisco. San Francisco needed water and by flooding the Hetch Hetchy Valley with a dam would provide that water for it’s municipal supply. The impetus for San Francisco was the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire. At the time of the earthquake, San Francisco had no high pressure water supply. The city’s water came from twenty-three cisterns and a reservoir on the peninsula managed by the fire department. It was that year that San Francisco applied to the federal government to build a dam. Federal approval was necessary since Hetch Hetchy was within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park.

Hetch Hetchy and the Tuolumne River were dammed up when the O’Shaughnessy Dam was completed in 1923. The result was the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir which is about eight miles long. Water from the reservoir in Yosemite travels 160 miles by gravity to San Francisco. In reality, there are several Bay Area communities that also share the water coming down from Yosemite. To say the dam construction was controversial is an understatement. In fact, it still is.

john muir coin

2005 issued coin depicting John Muir and Yosemite

The Sierra Club and other preservationists were against it before the dam was built and today continues to be against it. It would be reasonable to say that restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley was and is one of the top priorities of that organization.The issue then and even now seems to be a challenge to San Francisco’s right to take the water.

Right from the start there were many challenges to San Francisco’s right to call for the damming of Hetch Hetchy and some newspapers took the side of the preservationists.

As of this writing, there are actions underway by various groups to call for the removal of the O’Shaughnessy Dam. In fact, in 1987, United States Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel issued a proposal to restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley. This demonstrates that the issue has been floating around for several decades. Many of these advocates contend that the city of San Francisco has the ability to acquire water elsewhere. At this time the city is strongly against removing the dam which places San Francisco on an anti side of an environmental issue which in itself is quite unique. The George W. Bush administration even allocated funding to study the effects of removing the dam and the city opposed that. This was one issue where it appears that the Bush administration and the Sierra Club were on the same side of an argument. At the time, Diane Feinstein and her group were able to have the allocation removed from the Bush budget.

Proponents of removing the dam and restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley contend that the Yosemite reservoir is only one of several reservoirs that San Francisco utilizes. They contend that Hetch Hetchy stores less than 25 percent of the city’s water supply and that the Don Pedro Reservoir further downstream holds about twice the amount of water than Hetch Hetchy. They also contend that water can be diverted from the Tuolumne River further downstream from Yosemite. Their overall goal is to restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley to the natural beauty it had during the time of John Muir. John Muir of course lost his battle against the dam shortly before his death.

john muir in 1907

John Muir, 1907

As far as San Francisco and the reservoirs supporters are concerned, they have spent a good deal of funds over the previous years updating the dam and reservoir’s infrastructure  against earthquakes. Supporters claim that Hetch Hetchy is a critical water source for not only San Francisco but also as far away as the Silicon Valley. They also feel it’s very important to the overall economy. Supporters feel that the recent efforts to put the issue in front of the voters is really an effort to get funding for sustainable water studies. San Francisco says they already are working on water sustainability and implementation is going on.

Another factor in the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir debate is that the dam produces electric power for millions of people in the Bay Area as well as in the San Joaquin Valley. Water is only one side of the coin. Replacement of lost electricity is another totally different issue. The dam produces about 1 percent of the state of California’s power during summer months. The Hetch Hetchy provides about two billion kilowatt hours of electrical power per year with it’s three mid sized hydroelectric power systems. The Restore Hetch Hetchy project states that a power replacement plan would be based on renewable energy and will not increase emissions of any pollutants or carbon. What the group is apparently pointing to is solar and wind power and possibly natural gas. The supporters for keeping the dam just as it is doubt very much that the alternative renewable plan would or could replace the power generation lost. Some feel that the entire Restore Hetch Hetchy movement is nothing more than a plan for promoting solar and wind energy investment. As the hydroelectric plants are today at Hetch Hetchy, there is no CO2 being put out therefore no threat on the Global Warming front.  As far as the water loss to San Francisco, supporters of the dam do not think there is any feasible way for the city to replace the water source it would lose. Only the future holds the answer as to what will eventually happen, if anything, to the O’Shaughnessy Dam.

Two related articles we’ve published are John Muir’s Home in Martinez California and John Muir and the Greening of America.

Yosemite National Park is always a great place to visit. It’s relatively close proximity to the San Francisco Bay Area makes it easy to reach. Yosemite is about a three hour drive from San Francisco proper and can be more or less depending on where you are in the Bay Area. The popularity of Yosemite is such that reservations to stay at the Ahwahnee Lodge inside the park during the summer months need to be made months in advance. Another very interesting site that’s directly related to Yosemite is the John Muir Home located in Martinez California just a relatively short drive northeast of San Francisco. The John Muir National Historic Site is operated by the National Park Service and is located at at Highway 4 at the Alhambra exit.

(Photos are from the public domain)