While we typically reserve posts on this page for stops that exist outside of our national parks, Hetch Hetchy Valley is a unique case that fits well here because it feels entirely separate from the wilds of Yosemite National Park. It is located inside of park boundaries and it always has been, though its function has changed from that of a thriving natural ecosystem to a hydroelectric reservoir providing the city of San Francisco with portions of their water supply. It is recorded that Raker Bill that would allow the intentional flooding of the valley was to be John Muir’s final heartbreak before he died—he considered the Hetch Hetchy Valley to be the perfect counterpart to his beloved Yosemite Valley.
After spending a day at Hetch Hetchy, we knew that we wanted to share a sidebar on our site about its complicated past. To do so, we sought out a leading expert to better explain the backstory of how the reservoir came to be, the pros and cons of its existence, and steps that are being made to restore it to its natural state.
With that, we offer our warmest thanks to Spreck Rosekrans, Executive Director of the Restore Hetch Hetchy Foundation, for taking the time to shed some light on this most special place that has deeply affected the landscape of Yosemite National Park.
Jonathan Irish and Stefanie Payne (JI & SP):
When we visited Hetch Hetchy, we were struck by how similar it must have looked to Yosemite Valley in its original state. Can you give us a brief description of what Hetch Hetchy Valley looked like when John Muir first laid eyes upon it?
Spreck Rosekrans (SR):
John Muir and others lobbied for the creation of Yosemite National Park with boundaries that would include Hetch Hetchy Valley. As you may know, Yosemite Valley had been ceded to California in 1864 by President Lincoln for preservation – the first such action anywhere in the world, but Muir et al. thought Yosemite should be much larger.
Muir said: After my first visit, in the autumn of 1871, I have always called it the Tuolumne Yosemite, for it is a wonderfully exact counterpart of the great Yosemite, not only in its crystal river and sublime rocks and waterfalls, but in the gardens, groves, and meadows of its flower park-like floor. The floor of Yosemite is about 4,000 feet above the sea, the Hetch -Hetchy floor about 3,700; the walls of both are of gray granite, rise abruptly out of the flowery grass and groves are sculptured in the same style, and in both every rock is a glacial monument.
JI & SP:
Today, Hetch Hetchy Valley is a dammed and flooded reservoir. How did federally protected land become appropriated for the use of a single city?
San Francisco had been seeking an improved water supply for years. They evaluated a number of sites but liked Hetch Hetchy best, in part because it would also generate hydropower. They were denied several times, as it was in a national park. But when the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed much of the city, opposition in DC softened (including Teddy Roosevelt). Bare in mind that the city had water in reservoirs after the earthquake but pipes within the city broke. The city had been fighting with its water supplier, the private Spring Valley Water Company. So going after the Tuolumne River and Hetch Hetchy involved creating a public water system as well as the project itself.
President Taft succeeded Roosevelt in 1908, met with Muir in Yosemite and seemed to want to keep Yosemite intact. So San Francisco realized legislation was necessary.
When Wilson was elected in 1912 (after Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican party), he appointed Franklin Lane SF’s City Attorney as Secretary of Interior and pushed hard form restoration. The Raker Act passed the house in late summer. 200 newspapers editorials were published in opposition. The Senate debated it for 6 days. Many abstained, many opposed, but the bill passed. Wilson signed the bill.
JI & SP:
What role did Hetch Hetchy play in the passage of the National Park Service Act in 1916?
A bill to create a National Park Service (NPS) had been proposed but had opposition. The unprecedented controversy over Hetch Hetchy tipped the scales and the NPS bill carried easily less than three years later.
See Clark Bunting’s essay wherein he writes: “Thanks to the heated public debate inspired by Hetch Hetchy, the Organic Act clearly stated America’s commitment “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
JI & SP:
San Francisco relies heavily on the Hetch Hetchy Valley for public water and hydropower. Restoring Hetch Hetchy would entail finding other sources for the cities' consumption. What are the alternative options?
First, Hetch Hetchy is one of nine reservoirs in San Francisco’s (SF) system. SF’s water rights on the Tuolumne would not change. See diagram below. Don Pedro is 6 times as large as Hetch Hetchy. 1/3 of it, or twice the volume of Hetch Hetchy, is a water bank for SF. Water system reliability would still be good, but SF would need minor new plumbing fixes and to invest in additional surface or groundwater storage, water transfers from agriculture or recycling within SF and its service territory. These are all doable and are much less than what other California water agencies have done to reduce their impact on the environment. In particular, local irrigation districts could recharge groundwater basins in wet years with SF’s water, and withdraw it in dry years. The amount, about 60,000 af per year, is not challenging from a physical perspective, but would require improved cooperation with irrigation districts.
San Francisco would lose about 20% of its Sierra hydropower – would need to be replaced with solar.
JI & SP:
What are the arguments opposing restoration?
- Water supply
- Water quality (additional treatment would be required)
Mostly they have a “we stole it fair and square” attitude. The claim is that the cost of restoration would be much larger than our estimates, but we have never been able to have a real conversation about the discrepancies in estimates. That is what we hope to have in court.
Our petition asserts the following, which we will have to back up with expert testimony in an evidentiary hearing (which they are trying to avoid):
These are our projected costs, over 50 years. From our petition — “The cost of replacing water storage in Hetch Hetchy Valley to maintain the current levels of water service and electrical power production by CCSF would be approximately 2 billion dollars, including 199 million dollars for additional interties, 372 million dollars for water supply, 387 million dollars for water treatment, 669 million dollars in for renewable electric power, and 374 million dollars for modifying the O’Shaughnessy Dam.”
JI & SP:
How long would a full restoration of Hetch Hetchy take? Give us a short timeline of events.
Mostly reliant on the 1987 NPS report:
· The valley would be spectacular almost right away.
· There is little sediment and the Tuolumne River would return to its natural bed.
· Within a few years, grasses and sedges would be reestablished and wildlife would return.
· The “bathtub ring” would fade as lichen would reestablish itself on the canyon walls over a few decades.
· It would take longer to grow a mature forest. Planting saplings would speed up the process.
· What a great opportunity for families to visit the valley every few years and what it come back to life as the children grow up.
An example, under “moderate management”:
VEGETATION RESPONSE: FIVE YEARS AFTER BEGINNING OF DRAINAGE: The entire valley would be exposed and partially planted with native vegetation. Vegetation at the upper end of Hetch Hetchy would be much Burr extensive and well developed than at the lower end. Conifers would be up to fifteen feet high and black oaks would be about six feet high in areas planted the first year. Many native herbaceous taxa would have become germinated and would have established in some areas. Non-native taxa would be common in the valley and would have achieved dominance over the natives in most areas.
JI & SP:
How much of the restoration would be natural and how much would be man made? Other than dismantling the dam and removing the man-made structures, would the nature in the valley restore on its own or would it need help?
That is to be determined. The NPS report considers 3 levels of management. “Moderate” makes sense. Keep invasive species out. Plant trees in accordance with historical photographs (more meadows than forest as Yosemite Valley used to be as well.)
JI & SP:
You are currently fighting this battle in the courts. What hurdles remain in getting a restoration bill passed?
We need a leader in Congress who is not afraid of taking on San Francisco, who understands water system reliability and real solutions, and cares about the legacy of our national parks. Many are intrigued, but no one is ready to take this on—yet.
JI & SP:
How can people get involved?
People should sign up for our newsletter through our website to learn more and to stay in touch. We send hard copy 2-3 times per year and (almost) weekly email blogs.