Will the Real Preservationist Please Stand Up?

San Francisco's water supply from the Hetch Hetchy Valley is a contentious issue.

Caroline C. Lewis · Jul. 26, 2018

Over 100 years ago, the Hetch Hetchy Valley located in Yosemite National Park was dammed and made into a reservoir for the water supply of San Francisco and surrounding areas. This stands as the only time in American history when a single city has used a national park for its own exclusive benefit. How did this happen?

The Hetch Hetchy Valley was located in a national park, and thus fell under the protection of the federal government. Congressional debate occurred between 1908 and 1913 and Congress ultimately passed a bill, signed by President Woodrow Wilson on Dec. 9, 1913. The great controversy and regret of destroying the valley spurred the creation in 1916 of the National Park Service Act, which protected national parks for the enjoyment of all Americans. Yet the environmental blemish of damming and flooding a national park for water storage remains.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has shown interest in restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. Zinke met on Sunday in Yosemite with Restore Hetch Hetchy, a group dedicated to draining the dam and restoring this land as a national treasure.

Earlier this month, Restore Hetch Hetchy lost a lawsuit at the California Fifth District Court of Appeal. While California’s Constitution requires that the “method of diversion” for water be “reasonable,” the court ruled that San Francisco’s use of the Hetch Hetchy Valley as a reservoir did not need to meet that requirement. Restore Hetch Hetchy will now appeal its case to the California Supreme Court.

In terms of government involvement, in 1987, President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the interior, Donald Hodel, supported draining the dam and restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Restore Hetch Hetchy has sought meetings with the U.S. secretary of the interior since 2000. According to The Wall Street Journal, President George W. Bush “contemplated a feasibility study” ultimately blocked by powerful San Francisco interests including Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Democrat House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also stands in opposition to restoring the valley. In addition, Barack Obama made a speech at Yosemite in June 2016, but did not mention Hetch Hetchy.

Maybe we should follow the money. As a result of the Raker Act of 1913, San Francisco “rents” the Hetch Hetchy Valley for a mere $30,000 per year — roughly the same yearly amount as a downtown San Francisco studio apartment.

Opponents of Restore Hetch Hetchy argue that the 2.5 million residents in the Bay Area need water. Proponents contend that system improvements, water recycling, and underground water containment could give the people of San Francisco water and leave Hetch Hetchy, formerly a national treasure comparable in beauty to Yosemite, for the American people.

In 2004, Sierra Club President Larry Fahn stated:

“Now is the time to complete a full analysis of the feasibility and many benefits of bringing back the treasure of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite. The restoration plan would not "lose” the resource, or require “another clean source of water.” The plan envisions simply collecting and storing the very same water somewhere downslope from Yosemite National Park in the high Sierra.“

Several studies discuss the feasibility of San Francisco’s water supply without the reservoir, including the Environmental Defense Fund’s Paradise Regained and the Cherry Intertie Alternative, the UC Davis study called Re-Assembling Hetch Hetchy, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation study. Multiple studies also confirm the feasibility of restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley, including those by the National Park Service and University of Wisconsin.

The Hetch Hetchy controversy highlights the tension between local political interests and national values. It also highlights Democrat hypocrisy regarding the environment. Those open to restoring Hetch Hetchy have been the secretaries of interior under two Republican presidents — Reagan and now Donald Trump. Those who fiercely oppose restoration include Democrats Feinstein and Pelosi. Democrat Barack Obama, the "environmental crusader,” did nothing. Ironically, those assumed to be environmentalists may not be. And conservatives, long berated as anti-environment, are actually for conservation and preservation.

Will the real preservationist please stand up? You may be surprised who does.

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