The Ghosts of Hetch-Hetchy

by Gene Rose


If you listen quietly - and with a little imagination - you can hear the ghosts of Hetch-Hetchy.

At first there's the sound of silence, reflecting the aeons of creation, then the inexorable grinding and polishing that carved out what we know today as the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River.

Next you will hear the quiet step ones, the Native Americans who first occupied this great canyon. They bestowed the name Hetch-Hetchy on the valley - for a wild grass that grew there.

Now listen for the echoes of the "Forty-niners" and those that followed them, the gold seekers.

The oddly named Nathan Screech apparently was the first Euro-American to see this valley. We don't know the particulars of his reaction, but we do know that he fell in love with the area. He claimed it for his own - in 1850 - a year before the first white pioneers entered nearby Yosemite Valley.

It's not hard to visualize other newcomers venturing into the canyon. John Muir came this way a few years later. The wandering Scotsman left no evidence of his visit, beyond his expressions of reverence and admiration for what he saw as a rival to Yosemite Valley itself. Muir's appreciation for Hetch-Hetchy do doubt prompted, in part, his 1890 efforts to protect the area surrounding the Yosemite Grant as a national park.

Try to imagine the other sounds emanating from the canyon by end of the 1890s. For several years the City of San Francisco had been casting about for a source for municipal water. Several other watersheds were examined, but the city kept coming back to Hetch-Hetchy. The prime advantage was not the copious water supply but the fact that the canyon was situated on public land. The sounds were those of base water politics.

The Sierra Club, not yet a decade old, issued rallying calls, ready to protect the ramparts of the national park. The fight for Hetch-Hetchy resounded throughout the west, with major battles being waged in Washington, D.C. At issue was the sanctity, the integrity of a national park.

In the early 1900s our nation's government had not yet distinguished, on a policy level, between preservation and conservation. Many Americans did not differentiate national parks and national forests. The very idea of national parks as preserves had not yet made its way into the American ethos. But over time Hetch-Hetchy became a crucible in which echoed voices as the nation debated the costs and benefits of treating all its natural areas as usable resources.

In 1901, the Secretary of the Interior asked Congress to define special use easements through national parks. Eventually a bill was approved that authorized the Secretary of Interior to allow within "Yosemite, Sequoia and General Grant National Parks ... canals...reservoirs ...for supply of water for domestic, public, or any other beneficial uses."

One of the strongest voices to be heard in the Hetch-Hetchy battle was that of Gifford Pinchot. At the time, Pinchot was regarded as the nation's foremost conservationist. Pinchot lent his reputation to Teddy Roosevelt as a member of his staff, and helped develop Roosevelt's image as the "Conservation President."

In 1905, Pinchot was appointed the head of the re-organized Forest Service. It was his management philosophy that all of the nation's natural resources were available for human development - so long as that use was prudent and sustainable. His position on the availability of public forests was quite clear. "In the administration of the Forest Reserve it must be clearly born in mind that all land is to be devoted to its most productive use for the permanent good of the whole people and not for the temporary benefit of individuals or companies. The continued prosperity of the agricultural, lumbering, mining, and livestock interests is dependent upon a permanent and accessible supply of water, wood, and forage, as well as upon the present and future use of these resources under business-like regulations enforced with promptness, effectivenes and common sense. When conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question will always be decided from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run."

John Muir, a passionately eloquent opponent of the project, saw the issue differently and was fierce in his defense of areas like Yosemite National Park. He felt the national parks should be sacrosanct - that they should be left alone, inviolate. He articulated the difference in value between national forest resources and national parks.

Even after Pinchot had been fired from his Forest Service post by Roosevelt's successor, William Howard Taft, Pinchot remained in the public light. He left little doubt where he stood regarding Hetch-Hetchy, backing the city's effort to build the dam. When the issue came down to the wire, Muir's last hope rested in a presidential veto. But Pinchot had the ear of the President, and in 1913 Wilson signed the measure.

Now imagine Hetch-Hetchy filled with the noise of construction. Eventually the backed-up waters of the Tuolumne River drowned out the natural sounds that had been so common and familiar for centuries. All that Muir and his followers heard at Hetch-Hetchy represented a national tragedy - a preservationist's Waterloo - a national man-caused tragedy.

The concrete in the original O'Shaughnessy Dam was barely cured when the city decided - unilaterally - that it needed to raise the height of the dam to increase water storage. More park land was appropriated. Once again the valley reverberated with the clatter of construction.

Some of the promised sounds from Hetch-Hetchy never occurred. Early on, the city had painted a glowing picture of the reservoir as a recreational center, with people boating and amusing themselves on the lake. In fact, the reservoir was closed to public use and its recreational potential never realized.

Sounds coming from the canyon occasionally took on strange overtones, born of new controversies. In the 1950s, for instance, the Sierra Club's David Brower produced a film on the reservoir, calling for removal of the dam and restoration of the valley.

In 1985 a group of individuals apparently aligned with Earth First! slipped onto the walkway and draped a jagged strip of black plastic down the face of the dam. The visual effect suggested that the dam had cracked. Once again, Hetch-Hetchy was on the tongues of the American people.

About the same time, Rep. Rick Lehman, whose district then embraced Hetch-Hetchy, steered legislation through Congress prohibiting the construction of any more dams in Yosemite or other national parks.

The Hetch-Hetchy issue resurfaced in 1988 when then Interior Secretary Don Hodel proposed that the City of San Francisco undertake a feasibility study to determine if the dam could be removed and the valley restored. His suggestion generated cries of outrage and some intense media coverage for a few weeks, then quietly disappeared.

Today, as park visitation surges toward the 4 million mark, the debate over Hetch-Hetchy resurfaces from time to time. Visitors to the area number about 40,000 persons. However, if the dam were removed the area could accommodate an estimated 1 million persons a year, 1 988 study by the Assembly Office of Research suggests.

It's not likely we'll be hearing the din of workmen tearing down the dam anytime soon. Environmental restoration would take decades and cost megadollars. The state concluded that it would cost approximately $825 million to restore Hetch-Hetchy and compensate the city for the loss of water and power generation.

For now, the predominant sound in the great canyon will remain the lapping of the tamed waters of the Tuolumne River muffling the cries of the ghosts of Hetch-Hetchy.


Freelance writer Gene Rose worked for many years as Yosemite reporter for the Fresno Bee. He is a regular contributor to the Yosemite Association journal and has written a number of books about the history of the Sierra Nevada.


Reprinted by permission from Yosemite Association, Vol. 56, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 10-11.