Reviewing “Water from the Wilderness: Hetch Hetchy to San Francisco Bay”

Reviewing “Water from the Wilderness: Hetch Hetchy to San Francisco Bay”

"a profanation on the face of it - to go into a national park and dam up one of its most beautiful features"

Water from the Wilderness: Hetch Hetchy to San Francisco Bay” aired on KQED last week. On the whole, it is very well done. There are, however, a number of mistruths, omissions and misleading statements that may stick in the craw of any restoration advocate, including yours truly.

The documentary will show again on KQED (a Bay Area public TV station) several times this month. If it plays anywhere else, we will let you know. It is worth watching.

·     KQED 9: Sat, Dec 1, 2018 -- 6:00pm

·     KQED 9: Sun, Dec 2, 2018 -- 12:00am

·     KQED Plus: Tue, Dec 4, 2018 -- 7:00pm

·     KQED Plus: Wed, Dec 5, 2018 -- 1:00am

·     KQED Plus: Sat, Dec 15, 2018 -- 10:00am

·     KQED 9: Sat, Dec 29, 2018 -- 6:00pm

The film is appropriately subtitled “A LOOK AT SAN FRANCISCO’S COMPELLING AND CONTROVERSIAL WATER HISTORY”. Filmmakers Jim Yager and Peter Stein do an excellent and fair job of describing both the importance of supplying water to San Francisco and the unprecedented destruction that doing so caused in Yosemite National Park. And while the film acknowledges our campaign to restore the valley, it implicitly overstates the system improvements that would be necessary to make restoration possible.



The earthquake and fire did indeed arouse great national sympathy for San Francisco. Local reservoirs had plenty of water to fight the fire, but pipes in the City were severed by the earthquake. So it is not rational to use the earthquake as justification for building Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.


San Francisco’s need for water was very real at the turn of the 20th century. The private Spring Valley Water Company was poorly serving the City, and officials went to great lengths to develop a public water system, especially after the great earthquake and fire in 1906. Mayor Phelan played a huge role – secretively filing for water rights on the Tuolumne River in 1902, then trading political favors with the newly elected Woodrow Wilson a decade later.

“Water from the Wilderness” also tells the story as being John Muir’s last great battle, shortly before his death. Journalist Gary Kamiya describes Hetch Hetchy Reservoir clearly, as “a profanation on the face of it to go into a national park and dam up one of its most beautiful features – this is not the ideal on which national parks are created”. Until 1906, the Department of the Interior agreed and told San Francisco it would not be permitted to build a dam inside Yosemite.



Journalist Gray Brechin explains how the City’s major newspapers employed a thinly disguised homophobia by describing the “nature lovers” as “long-haired men and short haired women”.


National sympathy turned in San Francisco’s favor after the earthquake, but it still took an act of Congress to approve the Raker Act in 1913 before the valley could be dammed.

The film then turns to the engineering of the project, led my Michael Maurice O’Shaughnessy. The engineering and construction were impressive feats (even if inappropriately located). The last segments of the film look to the future and discuss some of the changes that will be necessary to meet water needs as we go forward. For those unfamiliar Hetch Hetchy’s history, and especially for San Francisco residents, the filmmakers told an important story about a historic controversy in a fair and interesting way.


Water from the Wilderness, however, makes a number of statements which tend to overstate the challenges to restoration. Had we been asked, Restore Hetch Hetchy would have worked with the filmmakers, but we did not hear of the project in advance. We will ask them why we were not consulted.


Our concerns include:

  • The film’s narrator says “some still want to dismantle” the system. This is not correct. The “system” includes 9 reservoirs, 3 powerhouses, and hundreds of miles of tunnels and pipelines. Restore Hetch Hetchy only wants to remove one reservoir and make system improvements so the system is equally reliable. The film fails to mention that Hetch Hetchy Reservoir provides only about 25% of San Francisco’s storage in the Tuolumne watershed, ignoring Cherry and Don Pedro Reservoirs. But by omission it seems to equate a storage tank with supply


  • The film says only that our 2012 ballot measure was rejected by City voters 3 to 1 It mentions neither that the ballot measure would only have authorized a public study of restoration options, nor the extensive fearmongering advertising of our well- funded opponents which ensured its sound defeat.


  • Environmental Historian Sarah Elkind opines that restoration will never take place because a reduction in carbon free hydropower would not be allowed. Why does she make this assertion when it is small compared to so many other reductions in carbon free power and why do the filmmakers let her assertion go unchallenged? Restore Hetch Hetchy estimates the loss to be about 350 gigawatt-hours per year (20% of San Francisco’s total in the watershed) and proposes it be replaced with solar power. This is about one half of what will be lost on the Klamath when its dams come out in a few years, and tiny compared to the power lost when the San Onofre nuclear plant was recently shut down. Why would a special standard apply to San Francisco’s hydropower?


  • Last, but not least - The film does not mention Restore Hetch Hetchy, so it obviously does not include our longstanding responsible approach to restoration which will ensure that not one drop of water supply need be lost. It's also disappointing that we were ignored.



Of the various experts interviewed for the film, Dr. Peter Gleick (MacArthur Fellow and founder of the Pacific Institute) is most positive about the opportunity for restoration. Gleick notes needs for recreation are increasing and we are "removing dams all around the country."


In conclusion, Water from the Wilderness is a great and important documentary, but with significant shortcomings from a restoration perspective. If you watch it, let us know if you agree.