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Hetch Hetchy


An iconic moment in environmental history is the construction of the Hetch Hetchy Dam. San Francisco, always desperate for fresh water supplies, looked to the Sierra Nevada to quench its thirst by the late 19th century. However, most of the Sierra’s water was owned by mining companies, used for hydraulic mining, by which high-pressure water was used to hose down mountains and uncover gold.

Hydraulic mining, Nevada County, CA, 1866

Yosemite National Park held much of the Sierra’s unclaimed water. Yosemite was the first protected area in the United States. Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864, beginning the process of protecting this gorgeous and special place from development. In 1890, Yosemite became a national park. But San Francisco wanted that Yosemite water. The early conservationist movement valued the efficient use of resources over beauty. After the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, pressure to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley grew and gained the support of President Theodore Roosevelt and forester Gifford Pinchot.

At the same time, John Muir headed the Sierra Club, which he had founded in 1892. Although many members of these early climbing clubs around the West could be broadly construed as “conservationists,” Muir went beyond that ideology, arguing that Yosemite needed saving for its own sake. He famous wrote a friend, “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”

Hetch Hetchy Valley, 1907

From 1901 until 1913, Muir led the Sierra Club in a campaign to protect Hetch Hetchy from these dam plans. One can argue that this was the first (or one of the first) efforts at modern grassroots lobbying. Muir wrote to his friend Robert Underwood Johnson:

We held a Sierra Club meeting last Saturday–passed resolutions and fanned each other to a fierce white Hetch Hetchy head. I particularly urged that we must get everybody to write to Senators and the president keeping letters flying all next month thick as storm snow flakes, loaded with park pictures, short circulars, etc. Stir up all other park and playground clubs, women’s clubs, etc.

With some slight changes in language, this could be an environmental organizational meeting today.

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir had once been friends in the conservation movement, famously posing for this 1905 picture in Yosemite.

But after Muir came out against damming Hetch Hetchy, Roosevelt, Pinchot, and other leading conservationists turned on him, unable to understand his desire to value beauty over human use. Congress passed the Raker Act in 1913, allowing San Francisco to build the O’Shaughnessy Dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley. The dam was completed in 1923 and remains a black mark on our nation’s environmental history.

O’Shaughnessy Dam

So the question today is whether we should tear down the dam. This idea has floated around for awhile. San Francisco has the water capacity to replace the lost water from Hetch Hetchy. Republican congressman Dan Lundgren has asked the Department of Interior to look into whether San Francisco is using its water properly so we can tear down Hetch Hetchy. Given that this is Lundgren, it is probably a trick. In the 1980s, Don Hodel, Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, proposed much the same thing because he wanted to drive a wedge between two key components of California’s Democratic voting bloc–San Francisco and environmentalists. But the Times thinks it is an interesting idea that Salazar should explore.

It is an interesting idea and I don’t necessarily oppose tearing down the dam. But I do want to make one point in favor of keeping it up. National Park managers, whether the NPS or managers of the pre-1916 era, have long sought to erase unpleasant human histories from the parks. Early parks, including Yosemite, had significant importance to Native Americans who used them for hunting grounds. Park managers sought to eliminate this indigenous presence in order to present a place devoid of human history for tourists. Similarly, Great Smoky Mountains National Park tore down all the wealthy homes built in its popular Cades Cove to allow tourists to experience a idyllic pioneer drive of pre-modern living and wildlife.

The dam is part of Yosemite’s human history. There are many ways to present that history of course. Rangers could no doubt tell stories for the next half-century or more on natural regeneration after the dam came down. There’s a lot they could do with historical markers. And no doubt they would do that. But it’s also important to remember that national parks have human histories that need telling too. The parks’ sheer existence is a story about humans and what they came to value at a particular time and place. In the century plus since Yosemite was protected, humans have made all sorts of decisions about what would happen in that space. Damming Hetch Hetchy is one of those stories. Its existence is a monument to how early 20th century Americans thought about nature. There’s a lot of powerful stories to be told about that arrogance and I’d hate to see those stories disappear.

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  • Amanda in the South Bay

    Ah, okay, I think this is related to the aqueduct that crosses over/under SF Bay right next to the old Dumbarton rail bridge (I have an esoteric geek interest in Bay Area infrastructure).

  • owlbear1

    Thanks for sharing a bit of history I am sure I would have never seen.

    I also agree with your assessment that erasing mistakes of the past can create problems of its own.

  • Bill Murray

    I thought this would be about Lynda Stipe’s old band


  • Nathan Williams

    I went to a wedding in San Francisco last fall of some moderately foodie friends and the menu listed “Hetch Hetchy water”. I had to go look that up, and learned a bunch of the basic history, but I’m still unclear on whether listing it as such was a political stance in favor of the dam, in favor of municipal water over bottled water, or what. It would not have occurred to me to say that we served “Quabbin water” at my wedding, though of course we did.

    • My mind is reeling at why they would label it “Hetch Hetchy water.” Is this to make regular water sound all mountainy and fashionable? To make a statement about where SF gets its water?

      • Nathan Williams

        Exactly my puzzlement. The interpretation I find most charitable is that it’s a reaction to events serving (and listing) fancy bottled waters, so it’s “Hetch Hetchy water” where you might otherwise see “Fiji water” or whatever is fashionable these days.

        • Yeah, I’m not sure if it is pretentious and bullshit or political and a little subversive.

          All of the above is possible.

        • ResumeMan

          It was absolutely pretentiousness. I’m sure it wasn’t a political statement about the dam, it was a boast about the high quality of the SF tap water.

          BTW, I live in the East Bay, and we get almost the same water as SF does, though I don’t think it actually comes out of the HH reservoir. I’m a homebrewer and just recently sent a water sample to be analyzed to see if it needed any adjustment. The stuff practically came back as RO water — just nothin’ in it at all, and it tastes good.

          So while pretentious, I do think we have something to boast about :)

      • Josh

        Almost certainly the latter. In much the same way that New Yorkers are proud of the quality of their tap water, many San Franciscans are proud of the quality of the water they get from Hetch Hetchy.

        • Thom

          Agreed, at least this used to be the case.

    • Vance Maverick

      If they were foodie but not lefty, I would expect they were trying to boast cutely of serving tap water.

      Readers of the SF Bay Guardian will recognize Hetch Hetchy as one of the white whales of the editors — the other being Pacific Gas and Electric. Of course they’re right, and there should never have been a dam there, but they are a mite obsessive.

      Eric, I think the aesthetic case for preserving old desecrations is limited. Sure, leave up an edge of the old dam so people can see where it was — but to the extent we cared about having a beautiful mountain valley, we should have it again.

      • kindness

        I live just below Hetch Hetchy. I hike, bike, ski and camp those hills all the time. I understand John Muir’s point, but I think the dam is a good thing. Modern California can not replace that water, no ifs, ands nor buts. The electricity generated by those dams (New Melones right below Hetch Hetchy) eliminates the use of combustion generators.

        Is it great & wonderful? No, but it is better than not having it, especially now since the population has qintupled since those early days.

        Mark Twain wisely said ‘Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over’ (paraphrased).

      • DocAmazing

        Readers of the SF Bay Guardian will recognize Hetch Hetchy as one of the white whales of the editors — the other being Pacific Gas and Electric.

        I think folks in San Bruno might just allow as how the Bay Guardian wasn’t at all wrong about PG&E.

  • Steven

    Stand on the shore of HH reservoir and compare it to standing at the shore of Tenaya lake or another sub-alpine natural lake in the Sierra, there is no comparison. HH feels like an unnatural moonscape. I found it to be really depressing when I visited. It’s only until you get a away from the lake and up Touloumne Canyon that your mood lightens.

    I say it tear it down–the bathtub ring and all the built up sediment will still be there for a 100 years to remind us how short sighted our ancestors were.

    • Ron

      The water that we drink daily tests out at under 100 ppm of contaminants, it rivals expensive bottled water that people buy and there is no substitution for it other than ground water and processed waste water. We have the water that is in the top 5% in the United States. The people who have put up this ballet measure would have you drinking what others in the state drink, about 350 ppm which tastes terrible. Before you give up something so wonderful as the water we have first drink a couple of gallons of toilet water and see how you like it first.

  • Jim Lynch

    I grew up drinking Hetch Hetchy water, which is some of the best tasting water on the planet. I’m sympathetic to those who agitate the valley be drained and “restored”, but oppose the idea. Too many people rely on the source, and there is no other suitable source that can reliably replace it.

  • Jim Lynch

    …But certainly, if a viable alternative exists to the Hetch Hetchy dam, one that would lead to the valley’s restoration, I’m all ears.

  • Next we can drain Lake Powell, which would have as an added benefit forcing a whole bunch of right-wing transplanted-to-Arizona snowbirds to move back to Iowa or Kansas or Nebraska or wherever they came from. Then maybe Arizona’s politics would return to sensibility for all its residents.

  • beaker

    California’s water resources are not static. The amount, type, and seasonal timing of precipitation are all changing and will continue to change in the centuries ahead due to global warming. Any conversation about dam removal should embrace the idea that the water supply (or flood control) issues of today will not be the water supply issues of 2050.

  • Pseudonym

    Yes, and let’s keep Confederate battle flags flying over state Capitols in the South, lest we forget to tell our stories about the Civil War War Between the States War of Northern Aggression.

    • JimmyJeff


      If we’re going to talk about tearing down a dam, lets discuss it on a basis of water needed, or alternatives available.

      Mr. Loomis’ suggestion is too merely conceptual to be worth considering. Unless you think it’s a good thing to leave your enemies bodies and/or heads displayed along the boulevard’s lamp posts, just to teach everybody a lesson…

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