A little history, a little libel and the future

A little history, a little libel, and the future



The narrow canyon at the downstream end of Hetch Hetchy Valley was enticing to dambuilders. Tunneling through the Coast Range to deliver the water to San Francisco proved to be a more difficult, and lethal, endeavor.

Did you know William Randolph Hearst was successfully sued for promoting a dam at Hetch Hetchy?

It was 1894 when George Harris first suggested that to San Francisco look to the Tuolumne River and Hetch Hetchy for water supplies. A few years later Mayor James Phelan personally filed for water rights and the city petitioned the Department of Interior for permission to build a dam. Yosemite was a National Park, however, so the petition was declined. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors resolved to abandon their efforts on the Tuolumne River and look elsewhere.

On April 17, 1906, however, an earthquake struck San Francisco. Water mains were severed and the ensuing fire devastated the city.

The same year, the Mayor of San Francisco, Eugene Schmidt, was put on trial for demanding and accepting bribes - including a potential $1 million from the Bay Cities Water Company if San Francisco would hire it to build a water project on the American River.

At Mayor Phelan’s prompting, San Francisco looked again to Hetch Hetchy, hoping that the federal government might be more sympathetic in light of the earthquake. Engineers and surveyors considered other remote sources as well, including the Mokelumne River – a few basins to the north of the Tuolumne.

By 1913, San Francisco had marshaled its forces and pressed the Hetch Hetchy project before Congress. Other potential water sources, however, had not entirely gone away. As part of an all-hands-on-deck approach, the San Francisco Examiner published a Special Edition, printed only in Washington DC, advocating for the Senate to pass the Hetch Hetchy bill. That Special Edition mocked the “nature lovers” and presented Hetch Hetchy as the only viable alternative. The Examiner quoted Congressman William Kent criticizing the Mokelumne proposal and describing its proponent, Eugene Sullivan, as “a thief and a man who ought to be in the penitentiary.”  

The Senate passed and Pres. Wilson signed the Raker act, allowing Hetch Hetchy Valley to be dammed and flooded.

William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the Examiner, was successfully sued for libel for the statements defaming Sullivan and the Mokelumne proposal. He appealed the ruling and lost again.

It took San Francisco ten years to build a dam in the remote Hetch Hetchy Valley. The Tuolumne River would not reach the Bay Area until 1934, however, due to the difficulty and lethal danger in tunneling through the Coast Range.

Oakland and other East Bay cities turned to the Mokelumne River. They formed East Bay Municipal Utilities District in 1924 and by 1929 had built Pardee Reservoir and an aqueduct around Mount Diablo (rather than tunneling through the Coast Range). In the early 1930s, a drought hit California and EBMUD provided emergency water to San Francisco.

California’s grown and there are no more untapped rivers. San Francisco, however, has the opportunity to re-plumb its pipelines to Cherry and Don Pedro reservoirs so it can continue to access its Tuolumne River supplies, and to invest in groundwater banking to ensure no loss of reliability in a drought. That’s the future. More later. Much more.