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Know the West

Why Hetch Hetchy is staying under water

A judge ruled in favor of San Francisco water needs over the valley’s restoration.


Early 20th century visitors to Hetch Hetchy Valley, a few miles north of Yosemite Valley, saw a rich meadowland and green oak groves, with the clear Tuolumne River winding through them, embraced by towering granite walls. It’s a landscape no one has seen since 1923, when the valley was drowned by Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, the main water supply for San Francisco, 180 miles west.

The reservoir’s existence has long cast a shadow on the city’s otherwise environmentally progressive reputation. “San Francisco, quite frankly, has a lot of guilt,” says Robert Righter, author of the 2005 book, The Battle Over Hetch Hetchy. “You can’t find anyone today that says that dam should have been built. There were alternatives.”

But garnering support for restoration has been difficult. Hetch Hetchy Reservoir supplies 2.6 million Bay Area residents with some of the cleanest water of any Western municipality, plus a small amount of hydropower. The source has kept San Francisco from getting enmeshed in the wars over the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta, a much closer source tapped by Los Angeles and Central Valley farmers.

Yet the submerged splendor remains a poignant symbol of loss. Opponents of later big-dam projects, like Glen Canyon, evoke Hetch Hetchy as a reminder of what the arid West sacrificed for its water infrastructure. Activists have spent decades trying to drain the 430-foot-tall dam and restore the “Second Yosemite Valley.” In May, Tuolumne County Superior Court dismissed the latest lawsuit filed by Restore Hetch Hetchy, an Oakland-based environmental group. The fight is far from over, though. “We believe we’re on the right side of this argument,” says executive director Spreck Rosekrans. “Restoration is doable. We hope that San Francisco will eventually come around.”


California’s Hetch Hetchy Valley, c. 1911, top, before the O’Shaughnessy Dam flooded it, and today.
Matt Ashby Wolfskill/ LOC; Daniel Mayer, cc via Wikipedia

In 1906, a devastating earthquake destroyed much of San Francisco’s infrastructure. The city desperately needed water and power, and Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley, where two steep granite walls met in a narrow V, was perfect for anchoring a dam.

In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson approved construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam in the 23-year-old national park. Legendary naturalist John Muir and the Sierra Club fought furiously to stop it. The battle spurred a broader debate over park protection and helped lead to the creation of the National Park Service in 1916. Nonetheless, seven years later, the valley was buried under more than 300 feet of water. “It is still seen as sacrilege to the national parks,” Righter says.

Conservationists fought for decades to overturn the Raker Act, which allowed the construction, but Restore Hetch Hetchy is the only group actively working to dismantle the dam today. Its proposed alternatives would either divert water about 35 miles downstream and store it in the existing Don Pedro Reservoir, upstream at Cherry Reservoir — or a combination of both. Hetch Hetchy Reservoir would be drained over three years, allowing incremental restoration of the valley. San Francisco would lose $18 million to $34 million worth of hydropower annually, but would receive just as much water, although at a slightly lesser quality, increasing treatment expenses. The estimated cost is $2 billion, billed to the city and county over 50 years, but restoring the valley would make the amount much higher.

So far, San Francisco County residents have resoundingly voted against draining Hetch Hetchy. In 2012, a ballot measure that proposed studying alternatives was nixed by more than three-fourths of voters.

In April 2015, Restore Hetch Hetchy sued San Francisco, arguing that the reservoir is “unreasonable” because the value of restoring the valley is greater than the cost of moving the diversion point. This May, the Tuolumne County Superior Court dismissed the case, ruling that a statute of limitations on the dam had passed and the 1913 federal approval trumps state law.

In some ways, the effort’s failure comes down to bad timing. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has called restoration “insane,” saying that the city should not risk a reliable water source during chronic drought. Meanwhile, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has poured nearly $800 million into the Hetch Hetchy system for a tunnel-refurbishing project, says Steve Ritchie, assistant general manager for water. “It has been the envy of water managers in California,” Ritchie says. The reservoir “really serves its purpose. Why disrupt that?”

Despite the obstacles, Restore Hetch Hetchy remains undaunted — and legally speaking, it might have grounds for appeal. The California Supreme Court has established that “reasonable” use of water is an evolving standard, says Barton Thompson, professor of natural resource law at Stanford University, and “a decision made in 1913 certainly could be considered unreasonable now.”

But even if Restore Hetch Hetchy wins the appeal, the group faces “an uphill battle,” Thompson says. “Do (the courts) really want to make San Francisco remove the dam? Would that be reasonable? It would be great to see the restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley, but it would come at a very high cost.” The group plans on delivering its appeal in early June.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the location of Hetch Hetchy: it is north of Yosemite Valley rather than south. Also, the details of the 2012 vote opposing the draining of Hetch Hetchy have been clarified.

Paige Blankenbuehler is an HCN editorial fellow.