Free Hetch Hetchy
Activists seek a study to look at tearing down a dam
To the members of a nonprofit group called Restore Hetch Hetchy, one solution to overcrowding in Yosemite Valley in California seems obvious: Create a duplicate of that enormously popular attraction, complete with its own spectacular waterfalls and soaring granite cliffs.
The proposal would not require a team of theme-park engineers to execute since a natural duplicate of Yosemite Valley already exists, and it’s only an hour’s drive from the original.
There’s just one hitch: It’s under 300 feet of water.
Ron Good, the director of Restore Hetch Hetchy, thinks it should be done. He says the 1913 federal legislation allowing the city of San Francisco to build a dam inside Yosemite National Park was a terrible mistake—a violation not only of the valley’s beauty but also of public trust in the integrity of the park system—and that the only way to rectify that error is to tear down the dam.
“Imagine the opportunity here: to allow nature to create a new Yosemite Valley,” says Good, looking up at the dam, which is 910 feet wide at its crest, and then out towards its 8-mile-long reservoir that waters San Francisco.
“John Muir called Hetch Hetchy Valley ‘a grand landscape garden, one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples,’ “ recalls Good.
Muir became a champion of federal preservation of Yosemite, and his campaign bore fruit. The national park was born on Oct. 1, 1890, though the state continued its management of the valley itself.
Then in 1895, during a visit to Yosemite Valley, Muir became heartsick over the state’s poor stewardship, which had allowed overgrazing and pell-mell hotel development. He enlisted the help of others to found the Sierra Club and launched a campaign to persuade the federal government to take control of the valley back from the state. In 1905, California agreed.
The next year, San Francisco suffered a devastating earthquake. The fires that followed the quake consumed everything that had not been knocked down by the temblor, their spread accelerated by a lack of water with which to fight the flames.
San Francisco had always been vulnerable to water shortages, and as early as 1901 had filed for rights to the Tuolumne River, 170 miles away in the Sierra Nevada. The federal government initially rejected the city’s application to dam the river and turn Hetch Hetchy Valley into a reservoir. It was the post-quake fire in 1906 that provided the leverage city leaders needed to persuade federal lawmakers to back them.
Debate over the bill was nationwide.
“Dam Hetch Hetchy?” Muir famously exclaimed. “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!”
But dam supporters won, and the valley was flooded.
There matters stood until 1987, when Donald Hodel, President Reagan’s Interior Secretary, made the radical suggestion that perhaps the whole thing had been a mistake.
Hodel proposed draining Hetch Hetchy, believing the exposed land would reduce visitor pressure on Yosemite Valley, and he directed the Bureau of Reclamation to conduct a preliminary study of replacements for its water and electricity. The study concluded that more efficient use of other dams and powerhouses in the river system might be able to make up for most of the losses if the dam in the park were removed.
San Francisco officials scoffed at that idea. Yet Good and his colleagues have had engineering consultants examine the Hodel report, and they’re convinced the Bureau of Reclamation was onto something. They’re calling for a more detailed federal study, which they estimate would cost about $1 million.
Removing the dam would cost perhaps $100 million, but restoration of the valley would cost little, they estimate. The Tuolumne watershed is mostly naked granite, so little sediment has been deposited on the reservoir bottom.
The idea of tearing down a dam is no longer as heretical as it once was in a nation that has built more than 75,000 of them; obsolete or fish-killing dams have been removed across the country in the past decade. But none were as big as the one in Hetch Hetchy, and none were generating big profits for their owners.
Good knows his organization of more than 600 members is fighting an uphill battle. But he’s been tireless in spreading its message.
“Hetch Hetchy has paid its debt to society," Good says. "It’s generated millions of dollars in water and power for San Francisco, and it deserves a rest."