Hetch Hetchy

by admin on August 26, 2009

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.

John Muir, 1908

I seem to be stuck in California, both topically and bodily. Yesterday while driving up to Grass Valley in the “gold country” foothills of the Sierras, I saw a highway sponsorship sign for an organization called “Restore Hetch Hetchy“. Once I had internet access I had to research the controversy, with which I had only passing familiarity.

Hetch Hetchy is a valley in Yosemite National Park which was named after the native American name for an edible grass which grew there. Though smaller than Yosemite Valley, it shares many of the same glacier-carved features including massive rock faces and ribbon waterfalls. To some of its enthusiasts it is even more beautiful than Yosemite itself.

The thing that makes Hetch Hetchy so interesting is that as major water controversies go, it was so early. The fight over damming the valley’s Toulumne River had to be one of the first major battles between “nature lovers”, as environmentalists were then known, and would-be takers of water. And the takers won, even though such iconic figures as John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt were on the opposing side.

The battle raged from 1906 to 1913, when the Riker Act ended it in favor of the dam proponents. O’Shaughnessy Dam was completed in 1923, and the main part of the valley has been underwater ever since. But the Sierra Club and other lovers of nature never fully gave up. In recent years, dam removal has become something of a low-key trend, and momentum for restoring the Hetch Hetchy grew when Don Hodel, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, began advocating for the removal of the dam. According to studies that were conducted at that time (1988), the water and power benefits of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir could be provided in other ways. This view seems to be rather non-controversial; the argument has shifted to the cost of removing the dam without losing its water withdrawals.

I don’t have a strong opinion on the Hetch Hetchy controversy, but I do have two observations. One is that, whatever the outcome of the battle over the Valley, it’s safe to say that it would never get built today if it hadn’t been back than. The despised “nature lovers” of 1913 have become the dreaded “enviros” of today, and their political and legal strength has only grown.

The corollary observation is that we have undoubtedly seen the “high water mark” of big dam projects that supply much of the irrigation and drinking water in this country. From here on, conservation of what we have already available can only increase in importance.

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