Since December 19, 1913, when the Raker Act was signed by President Wilson, there has been a lamentation on the loss of Hetch Hetchy Valley. However, not until 1987 under President Reagan did hope resurfaced that we may actually get it back. Donald Hodel, then Secretary of the Interior, suggested that the time might be ripe to remove the O’Shaughnessy Dam that holds back the Tuolumne River creating the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Since then, support and action has grown to the point that some studies have been made on the subject, a whole organization, Restore Hetch Hetchy (HetchHetchy.org), has materialize to champion its cause, and currently there is even a law suit working through the courts to force San Francisco to take the subject more seriously.
I’ve posted on this subject a number of times (see the links below). I’ve tried to be fair in the presentation of the issue, but have made clear which side of the fence I daggle my feet. What I haven’t done is look more closely at the pros and cons of the issues on each side.
In Favor of Restoration
The very idea that a dam and a reservoir was allowed and constructed within a National Park is repugnant. This, coupled with many accounts that say the beauty and grandeur of the valley rivaled that of its sister, Yosemite Valley, just makes it worse. Restoring the valley would return to Yosemite National Park a major asset. Given that the valley was flooded, restoration would be an ideal opportunity to witness, first hand, its rebirth.
I reached out to Restore Hetch Hetchy and asked them, “WHY Restore Hetch Hetchy wants the valley restored.” In response, Spreck Rosekrans, Executive Director said (among other things):
- Hetch Hetchy is an iconic, rare and spectacular landscape,
- Hetch Hetchy is part of Yosemite National Park and its damming and flooding is by far the worst destruction of our national parks have ever experienced
- Restoration would not only make Yosemite whole once again it would inspire people that we don’t need to live with mistakes of the past…”
Restore Hetch Hetchy’s mission remains, “…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.”
In Opposition to Restoration
I also reached out to San Francisco Water Public Records (SFWATER.ORG) for their views on the issue. I asked them where they stood on the issue of restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley. Though it took a while to respond, they were very cordial.
They did not so much “respond” to where they stood on the issue, rather they outlined why they like the system as it is; they shared a previously published flyer: Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and the Hetch Hetchy Regional Water System.
It started with some basic facts; that it stores up to 117 billion gallons of drinking water; it is a clean, efficient water delivery system for 2.6 million residents daily; and it “…generates 1.6 billion kilowatt hours of clean hydroelectric power annually…”
It then outlined five features that form “…the keystone of this clean, efficient water and power delivery system:
- Prinstine – Hetch Hetchy Reservoir collects and stores pristine snowmelt and precipitation from the protected Yosemite National Park wilderness area.
- No Filtration – Water collected and stored in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir’s granite basin consistently meets and exceeds Federal and State Filtration standards for safe drinking water. No filtration of this source water is necessary or required.
- Reliable Water Delivery – The water storage provided by Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is invaluable in its ability to capture snowmelt and store the water for reliable delivery throughout the year and across multiple years. This storage is heavily depended upon during droughts when the natural hydrology is in capable of meeting water needs even when rationing is in place.
- Gravity-Driven – The high elevation of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and the engineering infrastructure of the Regional Water System move water from its source, across the state, and to its customers using little more than gravity.
- Renewable, Dependable Electricity – Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, along with the waters retained in Cherry Lake and Lake Eleanor, provide the gravity-drivein water that is transformed into renewable, dependable electricity.”
The flyer goes on to say that the system supplies their customers with water and power that is delivered by “…a greenhouse gas-free system….”
I also asked San Francisco Water Public Records the following:
“I’ve been curious about the water purity issue and that one of the features of the Tuolumne River is its purity and that it could be delivered without filtration. But there are signs all over Yosemite about not drinking the water because of the Giardia parasites. It is recommended that the water is either boiled for 5 minutes before drinking, heavily filtered, or an iodine based purifier is used.
“Is there some filtering or treatment now being applied that wasn’t when your flyer was written?
“Do the State and Federal filtration standards that Hetch Hetchy Reservoir “meets or exceeds” include the standards necessary to eliminate the Giardia parasites?
“I see that in July of 2010 an article on SFGATE.com (by Kelly Zito of the Chronicle at http://www.sfgate.com/green/article/Anti-dam-group-questions-Hetch-Hetchy-water-3257983.php), expressed that same concern. Though the article demonstrated (at least, to me) that there were political retorts on both sides of the issue, the fact that the contracted giardiasis rates were higher than in other areas of California was not contested. However, the source of that contamination is in contention and that more analysis was necessary.
“Are you aware of any further testing to pin point the comparatively high rate of contamination in areas serviced by Hetch Hetchy water?”
I have had no response on these questions.
Rebuttal to the Argument In Favor
Again, San Francisco Water Public Records did not respond to the argument “In Favor of Restoration”, so let me share what I have learned from various resources.
Hetch Hetchy Valley as a repository for the water from the Tuolumne River belongs to San Francisco, et al. It was “deeded” to them in a duly enacted act of Congress in 1913. It was NOT a mistake. The issue at the time was should a portion of the public lands be given up as a right-of-way for San Francisco, et al, to store and transport water? The “public lands” in the context of 1908 and 1913 when the merits were debated, included ALL federally held lands whether wilderness, forests or national parks. Only AFTER the Raker Act was put into place and AFTER the establishment of the National Park Service, was there any supportable cause to dissuade such usage in the future, but certainly NOT retro-actively.
Rebuttal to the Argument in Opposition to Restoration
Spreck Rosekrans said, “Yes, certain system improvements are required to keep SF whole with respect to water and power. We have estimated the cost to be $B 2.0 over 50 years – primarily for water supply, water quality and hydropower replacement. In contrast, the recreational value of a restored valley is estimated to be $B 8.7 over 50 years – far greater than the cost of making it possible. The values are at the heart of our legal petition – filed April 21, 2015.
“Responding to the bullets …[items]:
Water quality would remain high. Note they also derive water from local watersheds and do filter that supply. The cost of filtration is included in our figures.
- Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is one of 9 reservoirs in the system. They would need to reoperate the others and make additional investments.
- Their system is “mostly” gravity driven, and it would remain so. If they expand filtration at Sunol, they would need to “break gravity” at that point.
- They would lose about 20% of their hydropower. Our figures include replacing that with solar power.”
There is no question in my mind that historical precedence goes to San Francisco in keeping the reservoir right where it is. Again, as I said in an earlier post about the nature of the government and of the Department of Interior more specifically, their job was of managing the land resources for progressive purposes (water use, timber, land appropriation). There was no distinction between wilderness, National Forests or National Parks. The consciousness of the country with regard to conservation (or, more specifically at that time, “preservation”) was only just beginning. It was left to individuals in the various offices to apply the “progressive” or “preservationist” flavor to a request as they saw fit. And that is what happened with San Francisco’s initial request to be granted the right to build a dam inside the park. It was denied in 1903 by Ethan Hitchcock, then Secretary of the Interior, because he felt that a National Park isn’t like ordinary wildernesses. He felt that the act conflicted with the conditions of the Yosemite Act of 1890 that made it a park in the first place. But after a change of administration at the White House and the 1906 earthquake, sentiments in favor of San Francisco grew. However, due to the public debate in 1908, congress just tabled the bill (they didn’t squash it). Then in 1913, when it was reconsidered, the Raker Act was passed. So San Francisco won the day, fair and square. It was not a “mistake.” It was merely unfortunate. Nevertheless it would be nice if we could reverse that unfortunate turn of events. And I’m in favor of that.
However, even if Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is drained (with its water to be stored elsewhere and the valley restoration begins), Yosemite will still not be “whole.” Lake Eleanor is another reservoir with another Dam and within the boundary of Yosemite National Park and also part of the “Hetch Hetchy water system” for San Francisco. True, a smaller Lake Eleanor was already there. It was named by Josiah Whitney (after his daughter) in the 1860s. But a dam was put up as a first step in the Hetch Hetchy project and was completed in 1918. According to Restore Hetch Hetchy, Lake Eleanor is not part of their plan or goal. At least, not at this time.
How feasible is restoration? Basically, that is what the petition (suit) filed by Restore Hetch Hetchy is all about; that is, to come up with a plan to rework the water system so that Hetch Hetchy Valley does not need to be used to store the water. According to “suggestions” listed in the petition, itself, the water from the reservoir at Hetch Hetchy can be stored downstream, say at Don Pedro Dam.
Don Pedro Dam was originally put up by the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts to better control their acquired water rights of the Tuolumne River. The rights were acquired in the late 1880s, the dams construction began in 1921 and completed in 1923. San Francisco began a partnership with Turlock and Modesto to share in Don Pedro Dam as well as the Tuolumne River (to which they already shared rights). In 1961 they all participated in an expansion of the reservoir creating a larger dam increasing storage from just short of 300,000 acre-feet to a bit over 2,000,000 acre-feet. It would not take much to increase the capacity to store all of what Hetch Hetchy currently stores.
With that, San Francisco looses its gravity-fed, filtration-free water source as well as some Hydro-electric generation (at least by a measurable degree). However, pumps and filtration could be added at a fraction of what Restore Hetch Hetchy says would be the benefit of a restored valley. Likewise, the hydro-electric losses can be made up in other locations or by other forms, such as renewable sources as is already required by the state.
It’s not going to be easy or simple and, maybe, not even feasible. There are already info-structure issues before San Francisco, such as required earthquake retrofits. But that is what the suite is all about. Have San Francisco look into it. Sure, Restore Hetch Hetchy had some suggestions, but San Francisco has to do the research; they know what functionality they need. That will determine whether or not it is feasible.
As it is clear from the Pros and Cons above, (and San Francisco’s less than enthusiastic undertaking in alternative view points) there are some sound reasons why San Francisco doesn’t want to give up their Dam/Reservoir. That is why I think it is good that the issue is now before the courts. There doesn’t seem to be financial or business need within their own sphere of financial responsibility forcing the city to consider relocating the water storage. Maybe we’ll find a legal one, allowing all parties to see alternative ways to handle the water system that would benefit both San Francisco AND visitors to Yosemite.
I welcome comments on this post (as I do on anything posted). Feel free to comment, “like”, or “share.” There are other posts on the plight of Hetch Hetchy at Yosemite Tales. See these:
The Plight of Hetch Hetchy This section of the Yosemite History page begins the series of discussions on Hetch Hetchy. This link will take you to the page; just scroll down from there. It was originally posted in June 2015.
Hetch Hetchy, Unsung Hero of the National Park Service In this post from July 8, 2015, I discuss some of the history of how a dam and reservoir could be placed in a National Park.
Restore Hetch Hetchy Valley. Then What? Taking a long view, I look at what we might do with a restored Hetch Hetchy in this post from August 6, 2015.
The Continuing Battle Over Hetch Hetchy In this final post from April 7, 2016, I reflect on the aftermath of the construction of the dam. It would be much easier to “fight” for restoration if we had some “bad guys” to rally against, but I don’t see any.
Feature Photo: Brooks Anderson’s “Hetch Hetchy: Requiem For a Valley”
“I’ve been curious about the water purity issue and that one of the features of the Tuolumne River is its purity and that it could be delivered without filtration. But there are signs all over Yosemite about not drinking the water because of the Giardia parasites. It is recommended that the water is either boiled for 5 minutes before drinking, heavily filtered, or an iodine based purifier is used.”
I think I can partially answer your question. There is a waiver for FILTERING but not for TREATMENT. In most areas of the country municipal water must be filtered AND treated. Whether or not it has first been filtered, public water must then be treated to achieve a 99.99% reduction in pathogens. That rule applies to Hetch Hetchy water as well. Hetch Hetchy water used in cities has always been treated, at least in recent decades. So the water is officially considered to be safer than most water sources, but not safe to drink unfiltered and untreated.