Hetch Hetchy

Friday, July 20, 2007
Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Yosemite National Park

Ever wonder what Yosemite Valley would look like dammed up?

If not for the efforts of John Muir, Ansel Adams and the fledgling Sierra Club, it might have happened. Seems unlikely? Consider the fate of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, also located in Yosemite National Park. Hetch Hetchy was dammed in 1922 by the City of San Francisco after a long, bitter battle, one of the first major environmental fights to occur in the US.

Hetch Hetchy is a virtual twin of next door Yosemite Valley. The glacier formed valley features the same high soaring granite walls, with several huge waterfalls plunging over the edges. In a move that what seem inconceivable today, San Francisco set its sights around the turn of the century on damming the valley to ensure a reliable water and hydroelectric power source for the rapidly growing city. The National Park concept was new enough that the idea of building a lake in the middle of Yosemite National Park wasn’t automatically rejected out of hand.

The battle over Hetch Hetchy Valley was the first on a national scale concerning balance between environmental preservation and development to benefit large numbers of people. Although the story (aptly told in ‘The Battle over Hetch Hetchy’, by Robert Righter) has plenty of goats and heroes, it’s hard even from the perspective of 90 years later to determine straightforward right or wrong in the decision to dam the valley.

These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar…….Dam Hetch Hetchy! 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.

- John Muir

When I lived in San Francisco, I was completely unaware of Hetch Hetchy’s existence until some friends took me on a side trip to see it following a weekend stay in Yosemite. After driving down a really bad road for what seemed like hours (it’s only 16 miles!), we reached the site of the lake. I was astounded – when the lake is full, it’s a beautiful sight (indeed, one of the pro-development arguments was how pretty the setting would still be with the lake in place). Several waterfalls can be seen from the top of the dam, and after walking through a tunnel, a trail extended around portions of the lake. Intrigued by the visit and the huge dam in the middle of a national park, I began to learn about the story of the beautiful valley that is no more.

Today, the Park Service has improved the road and facilities considerably, opening up Hetch Hetchy to the general public. Ironically, it took nearly 90 years before the Park Service inadvertently provided on a small scale what the proponents of the dam envisioned – development of Hetch Hetchy Lake as a tourist attraction. No one is allowed to boat or swim in the lake (it is San Francisco’s water supply), but the views are stupendous. There are signs all over the place with information about the valley, the struggle over building the dam, and touting the joint management practices of the area between San Francisco and the Park Service.

This feel good signage is a bit humorous, because relations between the city and the park have traditionally been frosty at best. Not only was Yosemite ‘invaded’ by the city to build the lake from the Park Service's perspective, at one point San Francisco tried to claim management of the entire Tuolumne River watershed! This is a huge area covering over 1/3 of Yosemite National Park itself. Most of the Tuolumne Meadows/ Tioga Pass section of the park are in the area that San Francisco attempted to claim. The justification given was that the city needed to protect the watershed from human impact. San Francisco wanted to ban all human activity in the area in question. Needless to say, this didn’t go over very well with the National Park Service, who managed to hang onto management of their own park in the long run.

The story of Hetch Hetchy is a valuable one which we wanted Vance and Ella to learn. Their Yosemite Junior Ranger programs had an activity on Hetch Hetchy, which piqued their interest. We also attended a performance of the excellent one man show, ‘Conversations with a Tramp’ performed by Lee Stetson at the Yosemite Theater.

The show is about an ailing 75 year old John Muir at his home, awaiting news of a hoped for presidential veto of the Raker Act, the congressional law that authorized the Hetch Hetchy project. During the wait over the long evening, Muir relates numerous stories of his childhood and life – his stern, Scottish upbringing, wild adventures exploring the High Sierra, and camping trips with Teddy Roosevelt in Yosemite.

Intermingled with these stories is a continued rant against the development of Hetch Hetchy and the need for protection for environmental resources. At the end of the first act, Muir receives word that Woodrow Wilson did sign the bill, sending Muir into despondency at the final end of a 20 year battle. The second act is a ‘call to arms’, encouraging his guests (the audience) to not give up hope, but to continue to fight for preservation, sticking up for the ‘plant people’.

Popular legend is that Muir died of heartbreak shortly after losing the Hetch Hetchy fight. In reality he was already a very sick man, although the strain of the fight and the ultimate loss couldn’t have helped him any. All was not for naught, however – the political lessons learned from the Hetch Hetchy fight have been successfully used since then by environmental groups, successfully stopping 2 proposed dams in the Grand Canyon. There is still talk about removing the O’Shaughnessy Dam floating around, a proposal backed at one point by Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, of all people.

On our return visit to Yosemite we finally made it to Hetch Hetchy. As described above, the facilities were considerably improved from my previous visits. Having absorbed the lessons imparted by ‘John Muir’ well, Vance was full of righteous indignation about the dam and the lake. Here, I thought, is a prime opportunity to demonstrate that things aren’t as clear cut as they may seem.

For many, many people, developing Hetch Hetchy was a wonderful thing, bringing benefits to millions. Interestly enough, at the same time Vance was complaining about the dam, another parent was proudly telling her children that 'this is where our water comes from!" I pointed out to Vance that he had been drinking, swimming and showering in Hetch Hetchy water for the past three weeks. But for our budding young conservationist, it wasn’t a convincing argument – the dam shouldn’t have been built. I’m going to have to keep working on that ‘see both sides of the argument’ concept, I see….

The truth of the matter is there were other sources for water for San Francisco at the time, although they were without the huge hydroelectric potential that Hetch Hetchy provided. Building the Hetch Hetchy system was a massive undertaking for the city, which almost bankrupted it on several occasions. A huge problem arose with the sale of electrical power generated by the project – San Francisco didn’t own the power system in the city (PG&E), but was prevented by law from selling it to a non-public utility (one of the concessions the city had to agree to lining up votes in congress). This sticking point went all the way to the Supreme Court, and at one point the federal government notified San Francisco that the project was being federalized due to San Fran's failure to sell the power by terms of the Raker Act. Fortunately from San Francisco's perspective WWII intervined, and they were able to hang onto Hetch Hetchy. Today, power sales add millions of dollars to the city budget, and Hetchy Hetch power is used to power San Francisco’s transit system (MUNI), including turning the cables for the Cable Cars!

Tuolumne Meadows/Tioga Pass

Following our visit to Hetch Hetchy, we took a beautiful drive up the Tioga Pass road. This road crosses the high backcountry section of the park, including the Tuolumne Meadows area. It’s a very different feel from Yosemite Valley. In the High Sierra, you are surrounded by soaring granite peaks, sub-alpine lakes and meadows. The area is snowbound for a good portion of the year – only in mid-late summer does it completly melt off (and the waterfalls in Yosemite Valley dry up!)

Shortly after we met, Denise and I camped at the Yosemite Creek campground in this section of the park. While there, we took a wonderful 12 mile round trip hike along Yosemite Creek, right to the lip of Yosemite Falls! It’s one thing to see the falls from below on the valley floor; it’s something altogether different to see it from the top. After Denise hung thru this hike, I pretty well decided I had to keep her ;-)

Tuolumne Meadows is beautiful, full of hiking opportunities and overlooks. However today was simply a driving and viewing day. Hopefully we can come back again and devote more time to this section of the park. It deserves a full stay – the views are simply amazing.

Note: Several weeks later as I write this post, Vance is still worked up about Hetch Hetchy. This is the first time since we started the blog that he's asked to read my post prior to writing his viewpoint. We had to ask him to please tone down what he really wanted to say ! - Mark

Vance: As Dad’s blog says, I am in agony over the Hetch Hetchy dam. It destroyed a beautiful section of park land! Okay, I’ve got to say I’m with John Muir about this. John Muir was a great man of wilderness conservation. After the Hetch Hetchy dam battle was lost, legend goes poor old John died of heart break a year later.

I love the wilderness in almost all of its natural ways. I love animals, I’m disgusted by litter and am amazed by natural formations. Well, you could help, and maybe one day, a new water source will appear so Hetch Hetchy will not be needed anymore.


P.S. After we posted this article, Vance received the following feedback by email from the Restore Hetch Hetchy organization!

Hello Tyson Family ---- Vance, you are right. It was and still is a travesty that Hetch Hetchy Valley was flooded for the selfish interests in San Francisco, when there were other alternatives. There are still other alternatives.

I'm current board chair of Restore Hetch Hetchy and I'm copying Ron Good our Executive Director who should be returning just about now from a backpacking trip in Montana with Bob Righter, the author of the book mentioned in your Hetch Hetchy blog entry.

Please visit our organization's website at hetchhetchy.org and please feel free to email Ron or me with any questions. With enough young Vances out there we will succeed in restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley to its natural splendor. My generation owes it to Vance's generation.


Jerry Cadagan
13225 Sylva Lane
Sonora CA 95370

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