A Century Later, the Battle for Hetch Hetchy Continues

The fight over a dam in Yosemite National Park marked the birth of the environmental movement

Editor’s Note: A hundred years ago, in 1913, the US Congress passed the Raker Act, which allowed for the construction of a massive dam in Yosemite National Park to feed the water and power needs of the City of San Francisco. As Ken Brower writes in his new book, Hetch Hetchy: Undoing a Great American Mistake (Heyday Press), “The environmental movement as we know it was forged in the fight against Hetch Hetchy Dam. No previous debate over the American landscape had so engaged and enraged the American public.”

Below is an excerpt from the book. Tomorrow – Tuesday, October 1 – the group Restore Hetchy Hetchy is sponsoring an event at the David Brower Center in Berkeley to discuss how the Hetch Hetchy Valley remains a touchstone for environmental conservation.

painting of a mountain valleyAlbert Bierstadt painting of Hetch Hetchy Valley in California’s Yosemite National Park

The 12-year battle for Hetch Hetchy, in the view of one school of historians, was the protracted labor that marked the birth of the environmental movement. There is no shortage of differing opinions, of course. Good arguments are made for a number of other points along the timeline.

Thoreau’s Walden, published in 1854, and George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature, published in 1864, were urtexts, certainly, epochal books that introduced the principles that would drive the movement. Later in the nineteenth century, the establishment of Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Sequoia National Parks ceded actual territory, thousands of square miles of it, to those principles. Early in the twentieth, Teddy Roosevelt combined love of the outdoors, eloquence in defense of it, and decisive action to embark on a spree of park creation that has not been equaled since. Some historians point to the successful campaigns against dams on the Colorado Plateau in the 1950s and 1960s as signaling the birth of the movement. Some point to Rachel Carson and the publication of Silent Spring in 1962. Some point to the first Earth Day in 1970.

These latter benchmarks, those of the second half of the twentieth century, come too late; to credit them as the starting point is to slight all the groundwork that went before. The argument for the Hetch Hetchy struggle and its period – fifty years after Thoreau and fifty years before the victories on the Colorado Plateau – is compelling. If any one beginning can be singled out, perhaps this is indeed the one. In a remarkable number of ways, the Hetch Hetchy Valley was cradle and crucible. The environmental movement as we know it today was forged in the fight against Hetch Hetchy Dam (as it was then called) in the years just prior to the First World War.

No previous debate over the American landscape had so engaged and enraged the American public. The Sierra Club and other opponents of the dam helped stir this sentiment, and then they stoked it. Their campaign to preserve Hetch Hetchy became the prototypic environmentalist campaign. John Muir, William Colby, Joseph N. LeConte, and other luminaries of the Sierra Cub reached out to form alliances with similar outfits across the country: the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Society for the Preservation of National Parks, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the American Civic Association, and others. This coalition launched a multimedia Hetch Hetchy campaign: pamphlets, magazine stories, newspaper editorials, letters to the editor, telegrams to Congress and the president. In 1909 the Sierra Club experimented with another sort of mobilization, diverting the ninth of its annual “High Trips” into Hetch Hetchy so as to familiarize the membership with the valley and build a constituency for the place.

“We are taking the Club Outing into the Yosemite National Park,” William Colby, the Club’s young recording secretary, explained to an ally. “We’ll spend the concluding week in Hetch Hetchy, in order to have the opportunity of getting as many photographs of the place as possible, and educating our members to look at the matter from our view-point.”

Back at the turn of the century, the aging Muir and the young Colby had been slow to recognize the gravity of the threat to Hetch Hetchy. The valley had first been proposed as a damsite in 1890, but only as one of a number of possibilities. Muir and Colby were preoccupied in the first months of 1900 by their campaign for “recession” or “retrocession” of Yosemite – reversion of the park from the state to the federal government. As they deliberated at the Sierra Club office in downtown San Francisco, Mayor James D. Phelan and other city officials were themselves deliberating a stone’s throw away, quietly laying plans to get the city’s water from Yosemite.

In Washington, Mayor Phelan’s representatives were busy investigating possible ways to get a legal foothold in the national park. Out West, the mayor’s associates had hired the engineer J.B. Lippincott to conduct surveys of reservoir sites on the Tuolumne, with the advice that he work quietly, so as not to tip off the acting superintendent of Yosemite Park or start a rush on Tuolumne water rights. Lippincott was a colleague of William Mulholland, the head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the man whose dams and aqueducts, and whose devious acquisition of water rights, allowed Los Angeles to grow into a megalopolis. Mulholland diverted the water from the farmland and ranchland of the Owens Valley, on the east side of the Sierra, and sent it south to his city. As Los Angeles bloomed, spreading to the margins of its basin and the limits of the inversion layer that trapped its smog, the Owens Valley withered.

In May of 1900, a congressman from Stockton, Marion DeVries, introduced H.R. 11973, a bill authorizing the secretary of the interior to grant rights of way through government reservations, with specific mention of the three California parks, for “canals, ditches, pipes and pipe lines, flumes, tunnels, or other water conduits, and for domestic, public, or other beneficial uses.” Whether or not San Francisco politicians had anything to do with this bill, there is no doubt that H.R. 11973 served the City’s secret agenda. It was stealth legislation. The nascent California environmental community, unaware of the legislation, did not act at all.

Hetch Hetchy damphoto by Photo Phiend, on FlickrHetch Hetchy Valley as seen from O’Shaughnessy Dam

“We, who were trying to the best of our poor ability to save these great parks for the people, knew nothing of the bill until it was a law,” William Colby would write. “We were probably not vigilant enough, but we certainly did not lack the desire to know all that was going on. Be that as it may we later examined the Act and found that it was the intention to still ‘preserve and retain’ the natural curiosities and wonders of the Park in their natural condition, and that such rights of way as were contemplated should not interfere with ‘the attainment of the purposes for which the various reservations are established.’ We felt that this apparently harmless act could not injuriously affect the park.”

Colby was then just 25. He had graduated from law school in 1898, two years before, and he had joined the Sierra Club that same year. The organization itself was only eight years old. Colby had been its secretary for just three weeks when Congressman DeVries introduced H.R. 11973. Young Colby was nicely representative of his movement, such as it was – still very green, political instincts unformed.

Shortly after the Right of Way Act passed in February 1901, Colby and Muir and their conservationist colleagues realized that DeVries’s little law was not harmless at all. The Hetch Hetchy skirmish became a war.

For the next twelve years, the fortunes of the warring factions swung back and forth. The conservationists at first seemed to have the upper hand. When they protested the Hetch Hetchy scheme and objected to any application of the Right of Way Act in the valley, the secretary of the interior, Ethan Hitchcock, was sympathetic. “Secretary Hitchcock,” wrote Colby, “relieved our apprehension and held that this act did not authorize the destruction of one of the greatest wonders of the Park.” When, eight months after passage of the act, Mayor James Phelan of San Francisco, emboldened by its provisions, filed an application with the Register of the Stockton Land Office in his own name for reservoir rights at Lake Eleanor and Hetch Hetchy, Secretary Hitchcock denied it. When Mayor Phelan transferred to the City his interest in the two reservoir sites, the application came up for rehearing, and Hitchcock denied it again. The City then submitted a “petition for review,” and for a time this sat on Hitchcock’s desk.

Then, in 1902, the San Francisco electorate, tiring of Phelan and his people for other reasons, struck a blow for the conservationists and their valley, voting the mayor from office and with him the incumbent supervisors who were pushing for Tuolumne water. The ousted faction continued to work behind the scenes for Tuolumne water, but the administration of the new mayor, E.E. Schmitz, was less enthusiastic. When in February 1905 Secretary Hitchcock denied the City for the third time, rejecting Phelan’s petition for review, Mayor Schmitz lost interest entirely. A year later, on February 6, 1906, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed Resolution 6949, asking that the City drop its plans for Hetch Hetchy and seek water elsewhere.

Then, two months later, on April 18, 1906, at 5:12 in the morning, from an epicenter two miles offshore, the San Andreas Fault struck a blow against the conservationists and in favor of the dam. The great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 destroyed the city, killed three thousand people, and brought the Tuolumne water plan back to life.

Most of the earthquake damage was not directly from the temblor, but from the fires it started, and this inspired ex-mayor Phelan to charge Secretary Hitchcock with complicity: the secretary’s denial of the City’s applications for reservoir sites, Phelan claimed, had dried up the fire hoses and contributed to the disaster. There was no truth to this. The fires were fed by broken gas mains all across the city, and the scarcity of water for fighting them was owed to broken distribution pipes; the conflagration had nothing to do with water sources outside the city. W.B. Acker, chief of Patents and Miscellaneous Division of the Department of the Interior, pointed this out in a memo to Hitchcock, adding that even if the City’s applications had been granted, the Tuolumne water system could not possibly have been finished until at least 1908, two years after the quake. Phelan’s argument made no sense, but it had emotional appeal, and the dam proponents ran with it.

Phelan’s faction continued to push for the Tuolumne water option in Washington. Marsden Manson, the San Francisco city engineer, worked with Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the US Forest Service, and Benjamin Ide Wheeler, president of the University of California, among others, in the effort to bring President Roosevelt into San Francisco’s camp. The enlistment of Pinchot would prove the turning point in the contest.

We complain today about the incivility of our political discourse, and we do seem to have bottomed out in one of the nadirs, but postfrontier public rhetoric was savage, too, and the exchanges in the Hetch Hetchy battle were blistering.

“I am sure he would sacrifice his own family for the preservation of beauty,” Mayor Phelan said of John Muir. “He considers human life very cheap, and he considers the works of God superior.”

Muir cheerfully returned fire. In an essay on Hetch Hetchy, he acknowledged that Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Sequoia National Parks were preservation triumphs, but added, “Nevertheless, like anything else worthwhile, from the very beginning, however well guarded, they have always been subject to attack by despoiling gainseekers and mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to Senators.”

“He is a man entirely without social sense,” Congressman William Kent said of Muir. “With him, it is me and God and the rock where God put it, and that is the end of the story.”

The San Francisco Call accused the Sierra Club of something like treason. “ENEMIES HARMING THE CITY,” ran a Call headline on December 11, 1909:

The persistent and vicious opposition that has been directed at San Francisco in connection with the city’s attempt to gain a Sierra water supply has taken fresh root within the city itself and a far reaching campaign against the acquisition of Sierra water rights is now being directed by an organization maintaining its headquarters in San Francisco. The Sierra Club, always aligned with the interests opposed to the city on the water question, is at present lending itself and its influence to an attack designed to do the city incalculable harm.

In the Hetch Hetchy battle, the language of the modern debate between preservationists and utilizers began to crystallize. The San Francisco Chronicle described opponents of the dam as “hoggish and mushy esthetes.” The city engineer, Marsden Manson, disparaged the opposition as “short-haired women and long-haired men.” Editorial cartoonists in the San Francisco papers specialized in portraying the dam’s opponents as unmanly and impractical. One San Francisco Call artist, the young Paul Terry – he would later would move to New York, start the animation company Terrytoons, and father Mighty Mouse – drew a cartoon, “Sweeping Back the Flood,” that portrayed the bearded Muir in a Mother Hubbard and apron, with daisies in his bonnet and a broom in hand, trying to sweep back a torrent labeled “Hetch Hetchy Project.” This characterization of tree huggers as elitist and effete is a tradition still with us.

Hetch Hetchy Powerphoto by vision63, on FlickrHetch Hetchy Power, Automall Parkway in Fremont.

Hetch Hetchy was template, or at least harbinger, for one trait that has dogged the environmental movement ever since, a characteristic the movement could have done better without: a tendency toward internal division and feuding.

The most famous split came between two sometimes allies, John Muir of the Sierra Club and Gifford Pinchot of the Forest Service. The two had had an earlier falling out in 1897, when Pinchot came out in favor of sheep grazing in forest reserves and Muir responded, “I don’t want anything more to do with you.” Then, in 1905, Pinchot backed San Francisco in the Hetch Hetchy controversy and described a reservoir in the valley as “the highest possible use which could be made of it,” at which the break with Muir became irreparable. This was not particularly lamentable, as it would have happened soon enough anyway. Pinchot was essentially a logger, a utilitarian who had brought German forestry methods to America and believed that “forestry is tree farming.” Conservation for him was the husbanding of material resources. Muir was an anti-utilitarian who conceded the need for lumber but believed that the great value of trees was spiritual. The two men were not subspecies of the same animal; they belonged to entirely different genera. A revision in the taxonomy of “conservationist” was overdue, and Hetch Hetchy sped that up: Pinchot’s way of thinking was designated “conservationist” and Muir’s “preservationist.”

Hetch Hetchy also sparked feuding within Sierra Club, and here it is difficult to find an upside.

The San Francisco attorney Warren Olney, a charter member of the Club and effectively its midwife – the organization took its first breaths in his office in 1892 – was a strong supporter of San Francisco’s position on Hetch Hetchy, and a number of other Bay Area members felt the same way. City Engineer Marsden Manson, the point man for the City in its fight for the valley, was himself a Sierra Club member. The pro-dam minority within the Club complained with growing rancor about the majority position of the Club’s board. The dissension dispirited Muir, who determined to resign as president and member until Colby persuaded him to reconsider. The Olney faction leaked news of the internal controversy to The San Francisco Call, apparently, for in December 1909 the paper reported: “Leaders in the Sierra Club have taken emphatic exception to any attempt to commit the organization to a policy antagonistic to the City. A movement was inaugurated yesterday by which the forces favoring the city may unite and call for a poll of the Club. It is strongly hinted that a majority of the members stand ready to repudiate any action or movement that may be regarded as hostile to the interests of the city.”

This proved to be wishfulness on the part of The Call. When the poll was finally conducted, the Sierra Club membership trounced the pro-dam faction, voting 589 to 161 in favor of continuing the fight for Hetch Hetchy. Fifty members resigned in protest, but most of the dissenters stayed. “Because,” as Colby would say, “they thought they could do us more harm by saying they were members and were in favor of the Hetch Hetchy dam.”

And so it has gone ever since.

The Sierra Club has been troubled for most of its history by its fifth columns, its infiltration by corporate sensibilities and influence, and by conflicts of interest among its officers. The organization does much fine work, yet it regularly steps into ethical potholes.

Hetch Hetchyphoto by Cowgirl Jules, on FlickrO’Shaughnessy Dam

This has been a problem for the environmental movement as a whole. With notable exceptions – mostly in small grassroots outfits starting out – the trend in the last three decades of environmentalism, certainly in the big national organizations, has been: more MBAs as chief executives, more corporate influence on boards, more business language (“branding” and “marketing”) in boardrooms and staff meetings, more environmentally suspect stock in portfolios, more of organizational budgets dedicated to fundraising and less to conservation staff, more constraint in telling truth to power and less boldness in attack.

The fight for Hetch Hetchy launched the modern environmental movement and revealed, for the first time, its surprising power and promise. At the same time it hinted at what threatens to be the movement’s undoing. In the sudden bright expansion at the start there was already contraction, an impulse for regression to the mean, a retreat toward business as usual.

Hetch Hetchy had begun to slip away from the conservationists. In 1905, City Engineer Marsden Manson renewed San Francisco’s application for water rights in the valley and in Lake Eleanor above. President Roosevelt determined that the Secretary of the Interior had the power to grant this right. That secretary had been Ethan Hitchcock, who had repeatedly denied the City’s applications, but in 1907 Hitchcock resigned and was replaced by James Garfield, who saw things differently. On May 11, 1908, Garfield decided in favor of the City. “It must be remembered,” he wrote William Colby the day after his decision, “that the duty imposed upon the Secretary of the Interior in acting on grants of this kind prevents him from considering merely the preservation of the park in its natural state, but he must, as well, consider what use will give the greatest benefit to the greatest number.”

It was an interpretation that left the new national park system vulnerable to the whims of a cabinet officer – to a man like the former car dealer Douglas McKay, secretary of the interior under Eisenhower, or James Watt, who filled this post under Reagan. But Teddy Roosevelt, the great park maker, who was now under the sway of the formidable Gifford Pinchot, did not object.

“San Francisco Against the Nation for the Yosemite,” ran a headline in the East Coast magazine The World’s Work. It was true. The debate over Hetch Hetchy was indeed a national debate, and most of the republic opposed the parochial water interests of the City; the nation recognized that its interest lay in the integrity of the national parks. Nowhere was this sentiment more clearly expressed, or the arguments against the dam more succinct, than in a series of editorials in The New York Times in 1913, as months of Hetch Hetchy debate in Congress came to a vote.

“A NATIONAL PARK THEATENED,” The Times editorialized on July 12, 1913:

Why the City of San Francisco, with plenty of collateral sources of water supply, should present an emergency measure to the special session of Congress whereby it invade the Yosemite National Park is one of those Dundrearian things that no fellow can find out. The Hetch Hetchy Valley is described by John MUIR as a “wonderfully exact counterpart of the great Yosemite.” Why should its inspiring cliffs and waterfalls, its groves and flowery, parklike floor, be spoiled by the grabbers of water and power? The public officials of San Francisco are not even the best sort of politicians; as appraisers and appreciators of natural beauties their taste may be called in question.

For an editorialist from New York, a city still run by Tammany Hall, to fault San Francisco’s public officials as “not even the best sort of politicians” took gall, but it was true enough: San Francisco, like New York, was governed by crooked politicians.

“HETCH HETCHY” ran the headline on September 4, 1913:

The only time to set aside national parks is before the bustling needs of civilization have crept upon them. Legal walls must be built about them for defense, for every park will be attacked. Men and municipalities who wish something for nothing will encroach upon them, if permitted. The Hetch Hetchy Valley in the Yosemite National Park is an illustration of this universal struggle.

The House of Representatives yesterday passed a bill of the politicians of San Francisco who are nurturing a power project under the guise of providing a water supply for San Francisco. The attempt has been made to suppress a report that the Mokelumne River would furnish a better and cheaper source than the Hetch Hetchy. The army engineers who passed favorably on the data presented to them by the officials of San Francisco – they made no investigation themselves – declared that the present water supply of the Far Western city can be more than doubled by adding present nearby sources and more economically than by going 142 miles to the Sierras.

In the tenor of The Times editorials, ever more anxious about the fate of the valley, a reader can sense the downward arc of the hopes of the conservationists. “THE HETCH HETCHY STEAM ROLLER,” ran the headline on October 2, 1913:

The local strength behind the city’s rushline is not difficult to understand when one realizes that the bill involves contracts amounting to $120,000,000, with endless opportunities of ‘honest graft.’ For months the project has been presented to Congress with persistence and specious misrepresentation. Urged first as a measure of humanity, it has been shown to be a sordid scheme to obtain electric power.

The act creating the Yosemite National Park sets forth the importance and duty of reserving these wonders “in their original state,” and the world has a moral right to demand that this purpose shall be adhered to. The “beautiful lake” theory deceives nobody. An artificial lake and dam are not a substitute for the unique beauty of the valley.

“ONE NATIONAL PARK GONE,” The Times editorialized on December 9, 1913, the day after the fight ended:

Any city that would surrender a city park for commercial purposes would be set down as going backward. Any State Legislature that would surrender a State park would set a dangerous and deplorable example. When the Congress of the United States approves the municipal sandbagging of a national park in order to save some clamorous city a few dollars, against the protests of the press and the people, it is time for real conservationists to ask, What next?

The Senate passed the Hetch Hetchy bill by a vote of 42 to 25. The bill converts a beautiful national park into a water tank for the City of San Francisco. The San Francisco advocates of the spoliation handsomely maintained at Washington, month after month, quite openly, a very competent and plausible lobbyist, and save for a few hearings and protests he occupied the Washington field most comfortably alone and unopposed. For this first invasion of the cherished national parks the people of the country at large are themselves to blame. The battle was lost by supine indifference, weakness, and lack of funds. All conservation causes in this country are wretchedly supported financially, and this one seems not to have been supported at all.

Ever since the business of nation-making began, it has been the unwritten law of conquest that people who are too lazy, too indolent, or too parsimonious to defend their heritages will lose them to the hosts that know how to fight and to finance campaigns.

An irony of the Hetch Hetchy project is how few of the protagonists saw it through to conclusion. Muir died 20 years before completion, never having had to witness any changes to his valley. He was “heartbroken” – the word almost every Muir biographer chooses – by passage of the Raker Act the year before his death, yet he also expressed relief that the long fight was finally over. James Phelan died in 1932, two years too soon to see his dream for Tuolumne water realized. Michael O’Shaughnessy [the chief of the project, head engineer, and namesake of the dam] died on October 12, 1934, just 16 days before his system was finished and dedicated. William Mulholland, who helped his colleague JB Lippincott design the Hetch Hetchy pipeline across the San Joaquin Valley, lived on nine months after the dedication, but he was no longer a player. Mulholland, even as he worked on the Hetch Hetchy pipeline, had been directing his Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in its construction of the St. Francis Dam – an arch-gravity structure, like Hetch Hetchy – in the mountains northwest of Los Angeles. In 1928, just hours after Mulholland gave the St. Francis Dam a personal safety inspection and awarded it a thumbs up, the dam failed, killing between four hundred and six hundred people downstream and ending Mulholland’s career.

O’Shaughnessy Dam and the gravity-flow system of tunnels and pipelines that delivered Tuolumne water to San Francisco were an engineering marvel. Many understood at the time, and historians are now nearly unanimous in retrospect, that it need not have been so marvelous. There were better, smarter, simpler, lower places for San Francisco to have stored its Sierra Nevada water. Ingenuity is often like this; in rising to an engineering challenge, it sometimes transcends common sense. For the past 80 years, the dam at Hetch Hetchy has stood symbolic, a temple of elegant solution or a monument of inappropriate technology, whichever you want.

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