Posted on February 7th, 2013

Outside the Box – Hetch Hetchy Valley

mountainousThe O’ Shaugnessy Dam holds nearly 360,000 acre feet of water in the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. But it also not without its controversies as most of the people in the greater San Francisco area appreciate the water it provide. Though a growing minority believe the valley should be returned to its natural condition, and that the residents should find better water alternatives and importantly, become more efficient in their water intake. 50-cm natural color image captured August 22, 2012 by WorldView-2 (WV-2), courtesy of DigitalGlobe. Photo enhanced by Apollo Mapping.

mountainousAn overhead view of a wild vein of the Tuolumne River that feeds the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. About a quarter of the voting population of the greater San Francisco area think it should flow through the valley, not just feed the dam. 50-cm natural color image captured August 22, 2012 by WV-2, courtesy of DigitalGlobe. Photo enhanced by Apollo Mapping.

In 1913, the Wilson administration approved the building of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir inside the confines of Yosemite National Park. It is owned by the city and county of San Francisco, and was intended to be a water supply and source of electricity for the growing city’s people. With nine reservoirs in the system, Hetch Hetchy still supplies nearly a quarter of the city’s water needs. One of the initial opponents of the reservoir was John Muir, a leader in the preservationist movement and champion of the National Park system. He likened the valley to a cathedral and considered it a holy place. He said damming the valley was like the desecration of a church or synagogue. Muir and fellow opponents lost their fight however, and the reservoir was completed in 1923.

In the last election cycle, the fate of the valley came to the forefront once again. Considered a “99 year wrong” by some, and a savior for 2.6 million by others, the 117 billion-gallon reservoir stirred up emotions that many had thought were long left for dead. This past November, Proposition F called for the draining of Hetch Hetchy and a new plan for conserving water. This would affect 31 counties around San Francisco, and would also put a halt to the 725-million kilowatt hours of electricity generated by the dam annually. This issue had actually been studied over the past 30 years with estimates for the removal of the O’Shaughnessy Dam and restoration to the valley between $3 and $10 billion; but this number should be juxtaposed against a planned $4.5-billion seismic upgrade to the dam for earthquake safety and water conservation. Either way you look at it, money was going to be spent on the valley.

But on Election Day, nearly 77% of voters cast ballots against the removal of the dam. Many thought the costs were simply “stupid,” and that while the decision to build the dam in 2013 would not have been made, 100 years ago it was the soundest choice to make. Proponents of Prop F said they would fight on, seeking to win their desired outcome in the 2016 election. With nearly 25% of the vote, they feel that the goal is within their reach. They did win minor victories in the 2012 election as people are starting to think and talk about water conservation, alternatives and the impacts of their lifestyle. Those for Prop F are also looking at another avenue for victory – i.e. having Congress rescind their decision to allow damming in a National Park.

Over 100 years ago, Muir said in regards to the proposed damming, “That anyone would try to destroy Hetch Hetchy Valley seems incredible; but sad experience shows that there are people good enough and bad enough for anything. The proponents of the dam scheme bring forward a lot of bad arguments to prove that the only righteous thing to do with the people’s parks is to destroy them bit by bit as they are able. Their arguments are curiously like those of the devil, devised for the destruction of the first garden. . . .”

Muir’s thoughts resound today with many who long for the restoration of the valley. But their argument actually mirrors another, eerily similar one; that of our reliance on fossil fuels for energy. At the expense of our natural wonders and beauties, and to the detriment of our health, we rely on outdated forms of energy. But the Catch-22 is that we need that energy. And as the world continues to grow in population and become more industrialized, we will need more energy sources. While wind, solar and water power are potential saviors of our reliance on fossil fuels, they are not realistic solutions – yet. So until they can be as efficient, available and reliable as fossil fuels, we will need to maintain our relationship with them, hopefully increasing their productivity along the way. Maybe in the future the residents of the San Francisco metropolitan will be able to take down the dam once they can offset its energy production, but will require another reliable and secure water source for 2.5-million people as well. Yosemite is a romantic reminder of our past, and the dam is an unpleasant reminder of our future in that progress and growth does not come for free.

Justin Harmon
Staff Writer

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One Response to Outside the Box – Hetch Hetchy Valley

  1. Great photographs, really. But I have to make several corrections here. First, the Hetch Hetchy system provides all of San Francisco’s drinking water, every last drop. Of the nine reservoirs related to that system, only six are for drinking water. Of the six, Hetch Hetchy is by far the largest, and provides the City with nearly 80% of its water supplies. As for the seismic retrofit, voters approved that $4.6 billion investment in 2002. The project is nearly complete, though payments on the bonds will extend for some years ahead. To tear down the dam would put San Franciscans in the odd position of simultaneously paying to tear-down and up-keep their water infrastructure.

    Have you been to Hetch Hetchy? It’s one of my favorite places in Yosemite. Very peaceful and serene, with many hiking trails and few people. I agree we wouldn’t build it today, but it’s there, and it is quite gorgeous.

    Thank you for the post.

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