There is another Grand Valley in Yosemite– the Hetch Hetchy Valley, but in 1913 the mayor of San Francisco decided to build a damn and flood the valley in order to provide water for California’s coastal residents.
Regardless of your politics, standing in the Yosemite Valley will make you feel a connection to our environment that is especially unique. Stepping into the midst of a pristine meadow below Yosemite’s quintessential mammoth stone monoliths will place anyone in a state of wonder.
Most of Yosemite’s visitors will leave with the perception that there is no other place in the world that compares but that isn’t completely true either.
There is one other place, a place that is commonly forgotten about by the general public, a place that exists within the northwest corner of Yosemite National Park and may be just as spectacular of a wonder as Yosemite Valley is but only receives a tiny fraction of the visitors. This valley is called the Hetch Hetchy Valley.
Downstream from the source of the Tuolumne River, the Hetch Hetchy Valley is a glacial valley formed as recently as 10,000 years ago. Even more recently, the Valley was flooded by the creation of O’Shaughnessy Dam in 1923. The dam subsequently created a reservoir that provides San Francisco with just under 25% of its water. The politics surrounding the construction of the dam are interesting with conservationists and captains of industry arguing for and against the damn to this day.
While the park and its protected boundary was first established in 1890, San Francisco mayor James Phelan proposed damming the valley that same year. Over the following fifteen years he applied two more times and was denied on both occasions, but in 1906 the San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire ravaged the city, giving the argument to dam Hetch Hetchy much more political support, as access to more water would have proven to be indisputably useful during the fire. Thus, in 1908 the Interior Department approved the city’s application to dam the valley. Although temporarily suspended, the inevitable construction was solidified with the passing of the Raker Bill of 1913, which gave the city of San Francisco final approval to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley. It is also important to note that The Raker Bill coincided with Woodrow Wilson’s appointment of a new Secretary of the Interior, Franklin Lane. It would thus appear that the damming of Hetch Hetchy can be attributed to the shift in Washington politics, combined with the changed public opinion that the earthquake and fire of 1906 caused.
Within this time frame there was a great amount of dispute on whether this decision was the right one. The main opponent of the dam was undeniably John Muir, who famously stated, “One may as well dam for water tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.” Moreover, there was a great amount of criticism from environmentalists nation-wide.
Currently, there is still a large effort by the Sierra Club, a non-profit group called Restore Hetch Hetchy, and many outspoken environmentalists to restore the valley to its original state.
Their basic argument is that the water is no longer, and in some circumstances never was, essential for the Bay Area. In addition, they argue that there are other water and power resources outside the boundaries of the park that can be utilized, the crowds of Yosemite Valley would be greatly reduced with the additional attraction of Hetch Hetchy, and that once the dam is removed, restoration of the valley floor would cost very little as there is not a large build-up of silt on the valley floor. Although they argue for the dam’s removal, there is acknowledgment by the supporters of this restoration that this will take a great amount of time and resources to accomplish. A right move in that direction would to be conduct a complete and comprehensive study on what it would take to take down the dam. This study would build, and or fill in the gaps of previous studies conducted and hopefully build a more accepted public discourse concerning the restoration.
Although supporters of the dam are much less outspoken, the process to revitalize the valley has continuously been stifled by the realities of our political situation in California. Seen through the lens of the pragmatist, an effort so great is just not worth it. Yes, the restoration would ease the overcrowding in other parts of Yosemite, yes it would be a great salute to the late John Muir, who fought tooth and nail to save this valley at the end of his life, yes– there are other options for water and power resources. But, at what cost? In a time in which California is completely out of money, is it smart to prioritize this over our public health, our education, our deficit issues and recurring drought?
Most notably, Senator Diane Feinstein opposed this idea and released a statement in 2005 arguing her case:
“I strongly believe that tearing down a dam that provides more than 2.5 million Californians with high quality drinking water is a terrible mistake.
The fact of the matter is that California needs every drop of high quality water that it can get. I have been working for more than a decade to increase California’s water supply through a state-federal partnership known as CALFED. CALFED calls for the development of between 1.2 and 1.5 million acre-feet of additional water storage a year. Eliminating the 360,000 acre-feet of high quality water that Hetch Hetchy provides would run counter to the goals of CALFED. We should be looking for ways to increase our water supply, not ways to diminish it.
Additionally, this would be a hugely expensive endeavor. Some say that draining the reservoir would cost somewhere between $500 million and $1.6 billion. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, however, believes the cost to be several times greater, because the estimates don’t include many of the major costs associated with replacing the infrastructure supporting Hetch Hetchy. At a minimum, any plan to restore Hetch Hetchy would require:
- New interties;
- New pump facilities;
- New conveyance facilities;
- Increased local storage;
- New treatment facilities;
- Purchase of water in critically dry years;
- Replacement of lost power from the Hetch Hetchy Project;
- Compensation to Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts for storage in the Don Pedro Reservoir; and
- Operation, maintenance and powering of all these new facilities.
Hetch Hetchy also provides 400 megawatts of power to our State. The California Energy Commission estimates that California needs an additional 3000 megawatts of power by 2008 in order to avoid a return to energy emergencies and blackouts. In a time when energy is in short supply, it would be foolhardy to take this reliable supply of power offline.
Much of the water and power infrastructure of the State, including Modesto and the Central Valley, has developed with the contributions of Hetch Hetchy in mind. Twenty percent of Modesto Irrigation District’s electric power is provided by the Hetch Hetchy system, most of it at cost. The Hetch Hetchy system also provides an important flood control function for the City of Modesto, which experienced heavy flooding in January 1997. And the City of San Francisco paid one half of the cost of the New Don Pedro Project, based on its ability to divert water further up the Tuolumne.
There is no question that Hetch Hetchy Valley is a remarkable environmental treasure. But the decision to put up the O’Shaughnessy Dam was made over 80 years ago. To tear it down now simply does not make sense.
The bottom line is that Hetch Hetchy is a critical source of water and power for the State of California. Draining the reservoir would be far too expensive and leave the State vulnerable to both drought and blackout. The O’Shaughnessy Dam should not be torn down.”
Although Feinstein’s pragmatic views are hard to argue against, they wield such resonance only toward ears that believe the inevitable is to use more and to conserve less.
The dichotomy between these two schools of thought have never been more apparent as we face a multitude of environmental and economic problems. Can we stay true to the idealistic and altruistic ideas of John Muir and conserve and use less to greater benefit the world to come, or, will we buckle in the face of economic peril and cast aside those noble ideals for more pragmatic solutions to our everyday problems?
It is my understanding that many people have not heard of Hetch Hetchy, let alone seen it. And the question concerning its future cannot be answered if there is no public conversation concerning it. I feel that if this issue were to truly garner national attention as it did a century ago, we could find an answer to the question: Get rid of the dam, or let it be damned?
Images from Wiki