The Hetch-Hetchy Situation

Editorial from Sierra Club Bulletin, January, 1914

by William F. Badè


Note: The following editorial was written shortly after the passage of the Raker Act, which authorized the city of San Francisco to dam Hetch-Hetchy Valley. It was published in the Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol., IX, No. 3, January, 1914. The editorial was prescient, especially in its final sentence, where history has shown to be true the assertion that the Raker Act eventually would lead to ensuring that dams would not be built in other national parks, such as those proposed in the 1950's in Dinosaur National Monument and the Grand Canyon National Park.


The press of the country is almost unanimously of the opinion that a perilous precedent has been set by the passage of the Raker Hetch-Hetchy bill. It is the first time that permission has been given to a municipality to invade a national park. Had this been done under spur of a real public necessity it would not be a serious matter. The Sierra Club has always stood ready to approve the diversion of any part of the Yosemite National Park if it could be shown that it is the only place from which San Francisco can derive a satisfactory supply of water. But the Board of Army Engineers, in passing judgment upon evidence collected by the city for the express purpose of showing the necessity of the project, found that "there are several sources of water supply that could be obtained and used by the city of San Francisco and adjacent communities to supplement the nearby supplies as necessity develops." They add further that the water "from any one of these sources is sufficient in quantity and is, or can be made, suitable in quality. * * * The determining factor is one of cost." Since the truth of these statements is unquestioned the passage of the Hetch-Hetchy bill must be regarded as the first act in a movement to break down our national park policy, and to expose the parks to commercial exploitation by municipal politicians and engineers.

When the Park was established in 1890 the committee reporting the bill said: "The rapid increase of population and the resulting destruction of natural objects make it incumbent upon the Government, in so far as may be, to preserve the wonders and beauties of our country from injury and destruction in order that they may afford pleasure as well as instruction to the people. " As watchful guardians of the people's playgrounds, Secretaries Hitchcock and Noble condemned the project as subversive of the purposes for which the Park was established. One Public Lands Committee after another did the same. But the project was kept alive, under one pretest or another, in anticipation of a more favorable political wind. Last summer the city's representatives entered into an agreement with the representatives of the Turlock and Modesto irrigationists, which however was never confirmed by their principals, and then the Hetch_Hetchy bill was adroitly caucused" and agitated as party measure. During the summer session the measure was rushed through the lower house, chiefly on the misrepresentation that a water famine was impending. The absurdity of this plea is apparent in the fact that water enough for two years was on hand; that the Calaveras dam, now in course of construction, is designed to provide for the need of decades to come, and that from eight to twelve years would be required for the construction of a Sierra water system.

The irrigationists discovered later that the bill to which their representatives had rashly given their assent, condemns large areas of irrigable lands to permanent aridity, and may ultimately deprive them even of the waters to which they thought they had legal claim. In any case, by investigations of the Conservation Commission of the State of California (Report 1912), the State Water Commission (*Report 1912), and the Irrigation Resources Investigations of the U.S. Agricultural Department ( Bulletin 254), and the records of Annual Runoff of the Tuolumne, it is shown to be certain that there is not as much water as the city and the irrigationists together claim for their future needs. Quite apart, therefore, from the destructive effect of the project upon the scenic values of the Park, so conclusively set forth by Frederick Law Olmsted, the Hetch-Hetchy bill is unquestionably open to the charge of being an anti-conservation measure.

As every one knows, the hope of California's greatness lies in the agricultural development of her great central basin. This development is impossible without water. Yet the present bill proposes to divert for metropolitan needs, easily satisfiable from other sources, waters without which vast areas of wealth-producing land must remain as worthless as a desert. The bill is vulnerable on the legal side because it attempts to exercise federal control over the distribution of waters within a sovereign state. Measures are already being taken by the irrigationists to test these assumptions of the bill in the courts. But of more fundamental importance is the question of public policy involved. Suppose a city is short-sighted enough to undertake to destroy, quite needlessly as in this case, the agricultural possibilities of a region upon which its own future development in large part depends. Ought the federal government to become a party to such a project?

Now that the bill has been passed it is beginning to be seen that the amount which the city is supposed to save is not nearly as great as the nation and the San Joaquin Valley loses. The political wisdom of this scheme is comparable to the famous Scalp Act of Pennsylvania by which the state paid $90,000 for the killing of hawks and owls in order to save chicken-breeding farmers a loss of $1,875. Presently it was discovered, through investigations of the Department of Agriculture, that by the killing of the above-mentioned natural enemies of rodents a contingent loss of nearly four million dollars had been inflicted on the agricultural interests of the state. The absurd law was promptly repealed, but not until irreparable damage had been done.

Senator John D. Works, of California, has introduced to the Senate a bill to repeal the Hetch Hetchy legislation, and in his vigorous remarks accompanying the same sets forth the points on which he justifies his action. A thorough investigation of his presentation is to be hoped for, as the truth is all that those honestly on either side of the question can properly demand.

We concur in the view of one of our correspondents that "the labors of the various public-spirited individuals and civic organizations who worked to this end [to prevent this legislation] have not been in vain. The widespread and vigorous expressions of public sentiment in the press and elsewhere in opposition to the unnecessary invasion of the National Parks for commercial and utilitarian projects has been of permanent value in making similar projects more difficult if not impossible in the future, and our National Parks as a whole are more secure as a result of the hetch-Hetchy fight."