San Francisco's peculiar take on its Hetch Hetchy legacy

San Francisco: We "planted the seeds for the modern environmental movement"


Retired Ranger Phil Swartz supports restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley, as do most other retirees and experienced National Park Service staff (the latter in privately expressed comments). Younger employees, who perhaps don't know the full story, are more likely to support the status quo.

"the first time the use of public wilderness and the nature of conservation were debated on a national level"

Given that the San Francisco's 's reservoir occupies Hetch Hetchy Valley, it's important for San Francisco to work well with the National Park Service. As part of this continuing relationship, San Francisco recently published a "resource guide" for Park Service personnel, titled "Hetch Hetchy Regional Water System | Yosemite National Park: A partnership protecting the pristine lands of the Tuolumne River Watershed." 

Most of this Resource Guide contains a generally useful and concise history of Yosemite and the decision to allow a dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley. It also includes the City's usual propaganda about the importance of its dam and reservoir. (This is a claim that Restore Hetch Hetchy maintains is overstated. We have offered to provide the National Park Service with our perspective, but not heard back.)


The damming of Hetch Hetchy led to greater scrutiny of proposals to inundate our most majestic landscapes, and is generally credited with preventing construction of dams proposed for Yellowstone in the 1930's and Grand Canyon in the 1950's. Dinosaur National Monument (with its Steamboat Rock at the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers shown above), however, was saved as part of a deal that dammed Glen Canyon downstream on the Colorado River. 

Photo: Reddit  

San Francisco's Resource Guide does pose a question about Hetch Hetchy's legacy with two rather peculiar answers. See below.

What are the impacts of the Raker Act and construction of this system?

* The Raker Act planted the seeds for the modern environmental movement. The passage of the Raker Act was the first time the use of public wilderness and the nature of conservation were debated on a national level. John Muir, environmentalist and founder of the Sierra Club, was the most well-known opponent of the bill. Muir reasoned that nature is a cathedral and should be left untouched. On the other side, some conservationists like Gifford Pinchot, former Chief of the National Forest Service, believed federal land should be used for the greatest benefit of the largest amount of people.

* Created a high quality water supply for the City of San Francisco and the Bay Area

* Prevented Colorado River Dam, Dinosaur Monument

* Reduced levels of recreational infrastructure in the Hetch Hetchy Valley

The first of these answers states that the Raker Act, which allowed the construction of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir within Yosemite, "planted the seeds of the modern environmental movement". We agree with this characterization, and historian Robert Righter has written it about at length in The Battle over Hetch Hetchy: America's Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism (2006).

It's curious, however, to see the City concede this point. Is it simply stating a matter of fact? Or is the City defending the decision and Gifford Pinchot's "greatest benefit for the greatest number" view? And, if so, would the City apply the same standards to development of other national parks? Damming the Grand Canyon? A steam turbine atop Yellowstone's Old Faithful? More likely, the City would oppose these projects but say "what's done is done" at Hetch Hetchy with scant acknowledgement of the dam removal movement taking place in many parts of the United States.

The third of these answers - that damming Hetch Hetchy prevented the same fate in Dinosaur National Monument is curious as well. (First, it's worth pointing out that Dinosaur was preserved as part of a deal to dam Glen Canyon - a deal that the Sierra Club lived to regret. See The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado, Porter and Brower, 1963)

Nonetheless, San Francisco appears to take credit for saving Dinosaur from being dammed. Does the City believe that Hetch Hetchy Reservoir was a worthwhile project (without feasible alternatives) but Dinosaur was ill-conceived? Or is it part of the City's view that Hetch Hetchy is its "birthright" and normal standards do not apply. The Resource Guide begs the question but provides no clue as to its answer.

In both cases, it's interesting to see San Francisco acknowledging the historic role that damming Hetch Hetchy has played in American history and in conservation history. We think it's high time for San Francisco to think about the future of this legacy, and the opportunity to return Hetch Hetchy to Yosemite National Park.

P.S. Save the date - March 17, 2018 - for our annual dinner at the Berkeley City Club.