John Muir called it “one of Nature’s rarest and most precious temples.” California’s Hetch Hetchy Valley was at one time as sublime as nearby Yosemite Valley. But in 1913 the US Congress passed a law approving a massive dam in Yosemite National Park, and Hetch Hetchy Valley became a reservoir designed to feed water and electricity to the booming city of San Francisco. Now, a century later, an effort is underway to tear down the dam and bring the valley back to life. Proponents say draining the reservoir would make for one of the most ambitious environmental restoration efforts ever. Opponents say that demolition would sacrifice an important source of renewable energy. The debate is bigger than this one reservoir, iconic though it is. The fight over the future of Hetch Hetchy is part of a global discussion over what to do with existing dams around the world, and how to balance the desire for landscape restoration with the need for clean energy generation.
by Spreck Rosekrans
Spreck Rosekrans is director of policy for Restore Hetch Hetchy. He has more than two decades of experience working with cities, farmers, tribes, and fishermen to find practical solutions for managing water and power in California and other Western states.
One hundred years ago, Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley was one of the most spectacular places in the United States. Carved by glaciers and surrounded by towering cliffs punctuated with waterfalls thundering onto a serene valley floor, Hetch Hetchy was described as a twin to the now world-famous Yosemite Valley that lies 20 miles to its south.
When San Francisco proposed to build a dam and flood Hetch Hetchy Valley, more than 100 newspapers across the country responded with outrage. President Theodore Roosevelt initially rebuffed the city’s efforts to dam the Tuolumne River at the mouth of the valley. But in 1906, after an earthquake and fire devastated San Francisco, Congress and President Woodrow Wilson relented and allowed the city to construct the O’Shaughnessy Dam. The valley was drowned under 300 feet of water.
Congress’s decision to allow the dam sparked reform of the National Park system. No such industrial development has been allowed in a national park since. And Hetch Hetchy’s damming has inspired generations of conservationists to protect our natural heritage and to commit to safeguarding our protected areas.
There are thousands of dams in the United States. Many are vital pieces of infrastructure that provide reliable water supplies, hydropower, flood control, and recreation. The O’Shaughnessy Dam, however, has caused significant environmental damage and its modest benefits can be replaced. We now have the opportunity to bring Hetch Hetchy back to life.
by Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond is executive editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian and author, with Marc Mowrey, of Not in Our Backyard: The People and Events that Shaped America’s Modern Environmental Movement (William Morrow, 1991).
A few years before he died, I heard the legendary environmentalist David Brower talk about tearing down the O’Shaughnessy dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley. Oh, he said, it might take a while for nature to return, but slowly, inexorably, it would happen. “Every time a species returned, we’d have a drink,” he said. “And in the end, we’d all be drunk and the valley would be restored.”
How on Gaia’s Green Planet could a booze-loving environmentalist like me possibly be opposed to that? Well, I’m not. I’m all in favor of tearing down the dam, bringing back the glory of John Muir’s Holiest Temple and letting the Tuolumne River run wild and free. We just need a few things to happen first.
I’m not going to argue that all of the pristine water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir is entirely irreplaceable. San Francisco’s pretty good at water conservation, but we can get better – and the suburban communities that also use the city’s water can do a whole lot better.
Water recycling, better use of rainwater, replacing lawns with native plants … there are ways to cut water use. But if my friends at Restore Hetch Hetchy think they can tear down the dam and still keep my kids and my dog in drinking water without relying on the overstressed Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, well, I don’t believe it. The widely stated assertion that San Francisco can use other reservoir capacity doesn’t stand up to factual scrutiny. There’s no way to make this work without tapping into other water sources. A full 85 percent of the water delivered to Bay Area customers from the Hetch Hetchy system originates at O’Shaughnessy Dam.
What do you think? Should the O’Shaughnessy Dam in Yosemite National Park be demolished so that Hetch Hetchy Valley can be restored?
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