Hetch Hetchy Reservoir July, 2014. At the highest level I’ve ever seen.

Hetch Hetchy – Unsung Hero of the National Park Service…

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir July, 2014. At the highest level I’ve ever seen.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir July, 2014. At the highest level I’ve ever seen.

Hetch Hetchy stood in a forgotten corner of Yosemite accessible, then, only by horseback or on foot. Even today, you have to leave the park to enter Hetch Hetchy via its own entrance, unless you want to take the leisurely 29-mile hike from the back country. It is like the park herself doesn’t want anything to do with it. A ray of light began to shine upon the submerged valley beginning in 1987 when it was proposed to restore Hetch Hetchy valley; a battle cry that crescendoed in 2012 when Proposition F, which mandated San Francisco to consider the feasibility of restoring the valley, was defeated.

Less than a year later, during what was then the worse drought in California history[1], the state’s third largest wildfire, the Rim Fire, circumnavigated the north and south rim of the reservoir and the valley was dealt another black mark with a scorched landscape. Then in 2014 a massive rock slide shut down a portion of a major trail on its north rim. It’s almost like nature, herself, “has it in” for the valley.

Hetch Hetchy just can’t seem to get a break.

There is no doubt the decision to destroy such a beautiful wilderness area, to put it mildly, is a crying shame. Especially since there are (well, certainly “were”) water sources less remarkable, even closer to the city and, as it has turned out, maybe less expensive than the Sierra’s that could have served the same purpose with a higher capacity. In my mind, it’s not just a shame. It’s sickening and unconscionable. I get angry every time I think about it. When I first saw photos of the Hetch Hetchy Valley before it was flooded, I was flabbergasted. I don’t even know which outrage to cry out first. How could San Francisco even get water rights to an area inside a National Park let alone put up a dam? Where were John Muir, The Sierra Club and the National Park Service?

To answer that, we need a better picture of the times and just a bit of the “parks” history. In 1864, under President Lincoln, a small area around Yosemite Valley AND what is now the Mariposa Grove were set aside and given to the State of California, as a park. In 1890, largely through the efforts of John Muir and his preservationists, a very large area of land which encompassed what is now Yosemite National Park was so designated. It DID NOT include the valley and the Mariposa Grove which were still under the stewardship of California. Two years later, John Muir and his preservationists formed the Sierra Club and concentrated their efforts on getting California to return Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to the government for inclusion into Yosemite National Park where they may be better protected. They were eventually successful in 1906.

All of this was fine and good, but there was no “National Park Service” to administer to the needs of the park. Indeed it wasn’t even clear what those needs were. No, that’s not true. There were two, very clear, but opposing views of what those needs were. The Progressive view point and, at the time, the traditional purpose of government, believed that “forests” “wildernesses” and now, “parks”, were all synonymous terms and government’s roll was to coordinate its use. In fact, that was the job of the Federal Government; to distribute the land to states and municipalities and even just plain people (through homesteading). The view of the Preservationists was that a “National Park” is a special thing to be protected from the land use laws and objectives. The Sierra Club’s next agenda item was to help establish a National Park Service. That was done in 1916 and they even helped to define what the “needs” of the park really were. Until then, being a National Park provided no protection from exploitation whatsoever.

San Francisco is a peninsula surrounded on three sides by water[2] – but it was salt water. What little fresh water was available was “trucked” or “boated” in by third party water supply companies (the biggest of which was the Spring Valley Water Company[3]) engaged by the city to meet the city’s water needs. Sort of…what they delivered was never enough. These water companies were also the source of corruption as was the city politicians that took the bribes to maintain the water company as the primary source of water[4]. When Mayor James Phelan took office in the mid 1890s, he had two main agenda items – Clean up the city politics and convert to a municipal water system so the city could get out from under the financial strangle hold of the Spring Valley Water Company.[5]

Once the trials and sentencing of the former city management employees was over, Phelan concentrated on a water source for the city. For reasons mentioned previously the focus (more like “fixation”) was on Hetch Hetchy Valley as a reservoir and the Tuolumne as the water source. In 1901 they applied to the Department of Interior for water rights to the river under the Right-Of-Way Act of 1901 (legislation which they were instrumental in getting enacted[6]). Those rights were finally granted in 1907 by the Secretary of the Interior, James Garfield (son of the former president) most likely because of national recognition of the city’s devastation from the earthquake the year before.[7] Holding these water rights eventually made it possible to get the Raker Act passed.

Yeah, but inside a National Park?

Back then a “National Park” didn’t have the same meaning as it does today. It could be argued it had NO meaning at all. The United States government had in its possession most of what is now the “continental” contiguous 48 states but as late as 1850, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa and Wisconsin all bordered on the “territories”; the American Frontier. California became a state late in 1850 (September 9). The US government had the land, but no stewardship. These territories were to be settled and its land put to use. National Wilderness or National Forests were just terms given to the, as yet, unsettled portions of the land, even if they were in the confines of a state.

The Yosemite Grant of 1864 was an act that had given the Valley and the Grove to California because the United States government didn’t have facilities to administer to it. This grant was a totally novel idea in human history. It was the first time a national government set aside land simply for recreational use. But that significance was lost on most people at that time. Wilderness areas and Yosemite in particular, were already being used as parks and recreation (mostly by the well-to-do, but not exclusively). But it was also being exploited; Sheep herding, Hotel constructions, Logging were systematically destroying the area. Those concerned (Galen Clark, John Conness to name two) put this before the US government and obtained the grant. Later, in 1872, a similar request was made for the Yellowstone area and it became the country’s (and the world’s) first National Park because there was no state of Wyoming to give it to (it was still a territory).

As it happens, this didn’t buy any protection at all. The mechanisms to make claims or grants for land use, whether in a state or not, still resided with the federal government and the Department of the Interior. Even though Hetch Hetchy, as was all of Yosemite (or most of it), had National Park status, the Department of Interior didn’t distinguish between forest, wilderness or park and tended to grant such requests.[8] They did in 1908 when San Francisco’s claim to the water rights was approved. That same year they proposed a bill to congress to allow San Francisco to build a dam at the mouth of the Hetch Hetchy valley to create a reservoir from the Tuolumne River for which they now had the water rights.

With the effort John Muir’s preservationists, the proposal was tabled, partially because John Muir and his preservationists argued for maintaining the valley as is for its scenic beauty which was the very purpose of creating it as a Park in the first place. But that argument just didn’t hold water[9] for San Francisco, but it did give pause to the congressional committee, so they tabled the motion and broke for the Christmas holidays. The resolution was not resurrected for another five years.

The act was put forth again in 1913. It was sponsored by John Raker, Congressman from California’s central valley. It caused an unprecedented national debate on the subject. Once again, the preservation of Hetch Hetchy was pioneered by John Muir and his followers. This time, San Francisco had two things going for it. First, they presented their proposal as an enhancement to the park, but more significantly, the committee members were more pre-disposed to granting the request.

San Francisco, fighting fire with fire, published a 5 pound, 400 page leather boundfreeman1 report (The Freeman Report) that explained that Hetch Hetchy “Lake” would be an attractive retreat with a road built all the way around it and a hotel over looking it all provided by the City of San Francisco (none of which was ever provided). They even provided a “photo”; created from an actual photograph of the valley that had been doctored to include a crystal, clear lake and roads drawn in. Every one of the members of the congressional committee was given a copy. Neither the roads nor the hotel were ever put up. This bit of flimflam helped get the proposal enacted.

John Muir was unable to attend either debate (in 1908 or 1913) in person owning to his annual “malady” of flu, which he encountered every winter[10]. But his sentiments were expressed by other preservationists. The Sierra Club stood behind the preservationists even though its membership was split on the subject (half of the members were residents of San Francisco and the bay area). Quite honestly, the preservationists didn’t expect to loose the fight because the park had National Park status. They felt that if the committee were reminded of the purpose of a National Park, then congress, as both congress and Ethan Allen Hitchcock had before, would deny the bill.

It might be argued that once “the book” showed that the “lake” could actually enhance the park, it took the wind out of the preservationist’s sails as they no longer had an argument. But that would be overly simplistic although partially true. Congress, at that time, was already predisposed in favor of San Francisco[11]. That’s why San Francisco pushed for the Raker bill at this time. They were successful.

The debate and controversy did not end there. Central to the argument was NOT whether or not the park’s resources could be used by municipalities or private the question remained on the very nature of what a park actually was. In 1913, as evidenced by the Raker Act, the progressive view was still in full force. By 1916 with the creation of the National Park Service, the preservationists were becoming more influential, if not just larger. Ironically, one of the converts to the new view point was John Raker, the congressman who sponsored the Act to dam Hetch Hetchy Valley in the first place. But still, other water resources were pursued and actually won in the case of Sherbourne Lake Dam at Glacier National Park and almost in Yellowstone National Park at Bechler Valley by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corp of Engineers. Most of these irrigation and flood control interests were blocked once the new National Park Service got its “sea legs” sometime after its inception in 1916. The “charter” of the National Park Service was influenced significantly by The Sierra Club and, arguably, because of the Hetch Hetchy situation, making it the unsung hero of the National Park Service.

Let me take a moment to say that I’m not trying to paint San Francisco as a bad guy. The city we know and love just would not be the same had it not been for Hetch Hetchy and its water. I won’t even suggest that dirty politics were involved to get it done (there may have been, but I haven’t seen any hint or evidence of it). True, there were some sneaking things going on, but, hey, some may call that “aggressiveness”. What I am saying that it is very disappointing that it all happened when it did. Had San Francisco’s need been acted upon 20 years later or the Park Service would already have been in place, so San Francisco might have chosen one (or more) of the other 13 sites they considered for their source of water and power and this whole discussion would not have been necessary. Well, maybe. If, as I suspect, there was no Hetch Hetchy to help clarify the needs of the National Park Service, our whole national park system may have become riddled with water rights, irrigation and flood control projects AND Hetch Hetchy may still have been dammed. It is said that “hindsight is 20/20”. My experience is that hindsight just gives you the opportunity to do it wrong a different way.

But I digress.

Things remained quiet for about 60 years until in the late 1980s when there arose talk of restoring

Artist, Brooks Anderson’s vision of a restored Hetch Hetchy Valley

Artist, Brooks Anderson’s “Hetch Hetchy: Requiem for a Valley” 36″x60″ oil on canvas, 1991 (used with permission)

Hetch Hetchy Valley. A website dedicated to promoting the restoration[12] outlined a plan that was simple (maybe even too simple). There were other studies done to determine the magnitude of the project to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley.[13] Of course, maintaining San Francisco’s water needs would need to be part of the equation. But I don’t need convincing; I’m all in favor of that. Once drained, what a fabulous arena to see, first hand, how a valley would develop from the beginning (See artist Brooks Anderson’s vision on a restored valley in Hetch Hetchy: Requiem for a Valley.) . I’m not holding my breath, though. All of this came to a head in November of 2012 when Prop F in San Francisco failed.

Restore Hetch Hetchy (the organization) continues to pursue restoration, though our ongoing drought presents a challenging climate for talking about removing a reservoir even if the water is saved elsewhere. 2013 was the driest year on record. Global Warming, whether human-caused or not, has arrived, unpacked its bags and is here to stay. Restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley will be a tough sell. A February 2013 California statewide poll provided mixed signals. It shows more people are in favor of action to restore the valley than are against it, but many were undecided. The opposition vote was close (45/38/16 and 48/36/16 depending on how the survey was worded)[14]. So that is encouraging. But, on the other hand, over 50% did NOT vote in favor; they either voted “no” or “had no response.” poll was taken after the defeat of Prop F.

I’m sure the topic will  come up again and the valley isn’t going anywhere. It’s buried under less than 400 feet of water. Obviously, any solution to the plight of Hetch Hetchy Valley is to make sure that San Francisco and others depending on that water are still being served. One of the problems with language is that it is serial in nature. It would be much easier and less confusing if we could communicate telepathically, so we could get the whole idea at once. But, alas, we aren’t there yet, either. Many people simply think about our ongoing drought and would vote no. Restore  Hetch Hetchy points out that the solutions for storing the water downstream and outside of Yosemite National Park are all based on how the system would perform in drought periods.

On April 21, 2015, John Muir’s birthday, Restore Hetch Hetchy filed suit against San Francisco – asserting that the ongoing operation of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir violates the California Constitution. Their petition is worth reading, along with other materials on their website. Spreck Rosekrans, Restore Hetch Hetchy’s Executive Director, believes they have a strong case. Restore Hetch Hetchy is a moderate and patriotic environmental group whose mission is “…to return the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park to its natural splendor while continuing to meet the water and power needs of all communities that depend on the Tuolumne River….”

I wish Restore Hetch Hetchy the best of luck with their campaign. For the time being, Hetch Hetchy Valley is dead in the water.

This article was reworked and updated with the help and input from Spreck Rosekrans, Executive Director of Restore Hetch Hetchy (at HetchHetcy.org)



[1] National Weather Service

[2] In case you forgot the definition of a peninsula.

[3] Images of America – Hetch Hetchy by Beverly Hennessey, Arcadia Publishing, 2012, page 9

[4] The Battle Over Hetch Hetchy by Richard W. Righter, Oxford University Press, 2005, Pages 39-40

[5] Ibid. Page 45

[6] Ibid. Pages 27-28,52,54

[7] Ibid. Pages 58-61

[8] They tended to, but not all felt that way, of course. Under the Rights-of-Way Act, rights for the Tuolumne River was applied for in 1901, but was originally denied by Secretary of Interior, Ethan Hitchcock, in 1903 specifically because he was not sure that should be done in a “Nataional Park”. San Francisco had reapplied and was granted rights in 1908 when the James Garfield was Secretary and who was more smpathetic to the plight of San Francisco, especially, after the earthquake of ’06.

[9] As much as I would like to take credit for that outrageous pun, I must confess it came from Mark Lochte, Physician’s Assistant at Kaiser Permanente. I bow to the superior wordsmith!

[10] and which actually killed him in 1914 one year to the month after the Raker Act was passed.

[11] Franklin Lane, Secretary of the Department of Interior at the time was formerly the city attorney for San Francisco

[12] www.hetchhetchy.org Restore Hetch Hetchy

[13] http://www.HetchHetchy.water.ca.gov, or go to http://www.ca.gov and search “Hetch Hetchy” for just some of the details (and missing details). I even found a site directed at teachers to show how to conduct a classroom reenactment of the 1913 debates at http://www.intimeandplace.org

[14] http://www.hetchhetchy.org/images/stories/feb_snap_poll.pdf California Voter Survey – Report on Results by Probolsky Research LLC, from Feb 13 to 17, 2013


Updated January 31, 2016 to clarify Flood Control and other reclamation efforts done in National Parks prior to the emergence of the National Park Service.