To the members of a nonprofit group called Restore Hetch Hetchy, one solution to overcrowding in Yosemite Valley in California seems obvious: Create a duplicate of that enormously popular attraction, complete with its own spectacular waterfalls and soaring granite cliffs.
proposal would not require a team of theme-park engineers to
execute since a natural duplicate of Yosemite Valley already
exists, and it’s only an hour’s drive from the
There’s just one hitch: It’s under
300 feet of water.
Ron Good, the director of Restore Hetch
Hetchy, thinks it should be done. He says the 1913 federal
legislation allowing the city of San Francisco to build a dam
inside Yosemite National Park was a terrible mistake -- a violation
not only of the valley’s beauty but also of public trust in
the integrity of the park system -- and that the only way to
rectify that error is to tear down the dam.
opportunity here: to allow nature to create a new Yosemite Valley,"
says Good, looking up at the dam, which is 910 feet wide at its
crest, and then out towards its 8-mile-long reservoir that waters
"John Muir called Hetch Hetchy Valley "a
grand landscape garden, one of nature’s rarest and most
precious mountain temples," recalls Good.
Muir became a
champion of federal preservation of Yosemite, and his campaign bore
fruit: The national park was born on Oct. 1,1890, though the state
continued its management of the valley itself.
1895, during a visit to Yosemite Valley, Muir became heartsick over
the state’s poor stewardship, which had allowed overgrazing
and pell-mell hotel development. He enlisted the help of others to
found the Sierra Club, and launched a campaign to persuade the
federal government to take control of the valley back from the
state. In 1905, California agreed.
The next year, San
Francisco suffered a devastating earthquake. The fires that
followed the quake consumed everything that had not been knocked
down by the temblor, their spread accelerated by a lack of water
with which to fight the flames.
San Francisco had always
been vulnerable to water shortages, and as early as 1901 had filed
for rights to the Tuolumne River, 170 miles away in the Sierra
Nevada. The federal government initially rejected the city’s
application to dam the river and turn Hetch Hetchy Valley into a
reservoir. It was the post-quake fire in 1906 that provided the
leverage city leaders needed to persuade federal lawmakers to back
Debate over the bill was nationwide. "Dam Hetch
Hetchy?" Muir famously exclaimed. "As well dam for water tanks the
people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has
ever been consecrated by the heart of man!" But dam supporters won,
and the valley was flooded.
There matters stood until
1987, when Donald Hodel, President Reagan’s Interior
Secretary, made the radical suggestion that perhaps the whole thing
had been a mistake.
Hodel proposed draining Hetch Hetchy,
believing the exposed land would reduce visitor pressure on
Yosemite Valley, and he directed the Bureau of Reclamation to
conduct a preliminary study of replacements for its water and
electricity. The study concluded that more efficient use of other
dams and powerhouses in the river system might be able to make up
for most of the losses if the dam in the park were
San Francisco officials scoffed at that idea. Yet
Good and his colleagues have had engineering consultants examine
the Hodel report, and they’re convinced the Bureau of
Reclamation was onto something. They’re calling for a more
detailed federal study, which they estimate would cost about $1
Removing the dam would cost perhaps $100 million,
but restoration of the valley would cost little, they estimate. The
Tuolumne watershed is mostly naked granite, so little sediment has
been deposited on the reservoir bottom.
The idea of
tearing down a dam is no longer as heretical as it once was in a
nation that has built more than 75,000 of them; obsolete or
fish-killing dams have been removed across the country in the past
decade. But none were as big as the one in Hetch Hetchy, and none
were generating big profits for their owners.
his organization of more than 600 members is fighting an uphill
battle. But he’s been tireless in spreading its
"Hetch Hetchy has paid its debt to society," Good
says. "It’s generated millions of dollars in water and power
for San Francisco, and it deserves a rest."