Senator Lois Wolk: A Profile in Courage

Senator Lois Wolk: A Profile in Courage




"It's important for Bay Area residents to understand that their water is safe. They have the rights to this water. What is at issue is where the water is stored" - Senator Lois Wolk, speaking about the opportunity to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park.

In 1955, then Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage, a book telling stories of eight United States senators who put principle above politics, risking their careers in the process. Kennedy's book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1957.

If President Kennedy were alive today and were to write a sequel, he might well tell the story of California Senator Lois Wolk. Like the senators in Profiles in Courage, Wolk's political career has been based on integrity rather than political expediency. 


Wolk with actor Harrison Ford and Don Hodel on the set of "Discover Hetch Hetchy".

In 2004, Assemblymembers Wolk and Joseph Canciamilla challenged the dominant paradigm when they sent a letter to Governor Schwarzenegger, asking him to consider the restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. They were very aware that political interests in San Francisco would be staunchly opposed to restoration, just as they had been when Secretary of Interior Donald Hodel proposed the idea in 1987.

Wolk and Canciamilla had been inspired by The Yosemite You've Never Seen, the editorial series written by Tom Philp of the Sacramento Bee, which also won a Pulitzer Prize. 

Wolk's interest in Hetch Hetchy was not based on emotion alone, but also relied on technical studies showing that restoration was feasible - both "Reassembling Hetch Hetchy" (Sarah Null and Jay Lund, UC Davis) and "Paradise Regained" (Environmental Defense Fund) explain in detail that restoration can be achieved without loss of water supply.  

Wolk's interest was, and is, based on the compelling opportunity at hand. She is always respectful of the opposition in San Francisco, where some consider Hetch Hetchy Reservoir to be the City's "birthright". 

In 2006, Wolk held a legislative hearing based on the state's investigation, but she found little support for carrying the idea forward.

In 2010 Lois again defied political expediency when she was one of a very few senators to oppose the pork-laden water bond that had been crafted by state legislature. Lois won in the end. The bond was removed from the 2010 ballot, came back pared down and much improved in 2014, and was ultimately passed by the voters. 

Wolk is retiring in 2016 - being termed out after 14 years in the California legislature. She will be greatly missed. Restore Hetch Hetchy is grateful to Lois and her dedicated staff for their service.

Sacramento and Washington D.C. are replete with elected officials who will privately concede that Hetch Hetchy should restored. To date, however, very few have said so publicly - part of the reason we are currently pursuing restoration through the California courts. We look forward to the day when our elected officials are willing to consider the merits of restoration without being deterred by the politics.

P.S. In a recent email regarding Ken Burns, we used a masculine pronoun to refer to historian "SnowblindAlbino" - someone whose gender is unknown to me. Apologies for the unwarranted assumption.

 It is time to return Hetch Hetchy to the American people.