Restoring Hetch Hetchy

By David Brower

Excerpted by permission from For Earth's Sake: The Life And Times of David Brower (Salt Lake City, Gibbs-Smith 1990)


Whether or not he meant it that way, when Secretary of the Interior Hodel suggested draining Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park, he advanced a superb idea for environmental restoration.

From John Muir's writing and Joseph LeConte's photographs, I had learned the splendor of the Hetch Hetchy Valley that was and had now become a candidate for restoration. It was more like the Merced River Yosemite that everybody knows than like the King River yosemite that forms the western entrance to King Canyon National Park. I knew it best from May 15, 1955, the day I took the color-film footage that was to become the Sierra Club's film, Two Yosemites -- an eleven-minute film cut out of the five hundred feet of Kodachrome that my original budget allowed.

Philip Hyde accompanied me, making black-and-white photographs we were to use in our campaign to keep Dinosaur National Monument from suffering Hetch Hetchy's fate. We were able to take a boat to the head of the reservoir, at that time drawn down to accommodate the late May and June heavy flow of the Tuolumne River. The drawdown meant an extensive area of exhumed stumps and silty reservoir shore. It also provided a dustbowl, as the wind whirled clouds of silt and sediment into the Sierra sky -- a fitting background for the narrative quoting various experts saying that the reservoir would create a beautiful lake, reflecting all about it. The narration went on to lament the loss of the valley. "The walls are still there, and the waterfalls, gleaming in the sunshine. But where is the setting, the heartland f this place. It is gone, lost irretrievably to all men, thanks to the dam, where plaques praise the men who took so much from so many for all our time. How much we lost we'll never know. . . . "

Although Secretary Hodel's proposal to tear down the O'Shaughnessy Dam was not the first suggestion that this be done, it came from higher authority than any other. And it provides a splendid opportunity to prove my narration wrong. We can indeed take the dam down in our time, and we can rediscover what we have lost. The rediscovery can be spectacular, and warrants careful documentation of the natural forces of renewal, which can begin centuries before they would have were we to wait for nature to take the dam down after the reservoir has been filled with sediment and the Tuolumne River begins wearing away the top of the dam and, eventually the whole damn thing.

The Hodel proposal produced the expected panic in San Francisco. Mayor Dianne Feinstein wanted it shredded. Alarmists (and I can tell one when I see one) warned that the alternative to Hetch Hetchy would be the proposed and despised Auburn Dam and Peripheral Canal and other adjustments, the cost of which would probably total six billion dollars. The media reported all this with but a halfhearted attempt to check. A forester told them how long it would take the trees to grow, and a reclamation writer told how long it would take for the lake bed to dry out and be usable. The mayor understandably did not want San Francisco to lose the thirty million dollars a year from the sale of Hetch Hetchy project electricity.

At the time I had been advocating that the Sierra Club initiate a second Remove Secretary Watt petition campaign, this time aimed at his successor. And now I was confronted with the need to praise Secretary Hodel for his brilliant suggestion. Here at last, I could assume, he had realized that because he had been wrong he didn't have to stay wrong.

The secretary, perhaps a bit stunned by San Francisco's abuse, said that what he wanted was a study of the proposal. We all know how long studies can take, and I would suggest that it is important to get on with the restoration of Hetch Hetchy right away. Secretary Hodel and the Reagan administration could take credit for a major environmental achievement.

Let' do a cost-benefit analysis of the restoration ourselves, right here.

First, we have to take the dam down and we have no cost history of dam disassembly. We know that nature took down the Teton Dam, or the San Francisquito Dam, for example, and sent no bill at all (although the consequences were quite costly). Mountaineer George Bell, when he was working at Los Alamos and heard people joking about taking down Glen Canyon Dam, said, "Oh, I think we have something on the shelf at Los Alamos that can do that." His solution, alas, would result in excessive radioactivity. What else? I would suggest that we turn it over to the freeway builders. They make a practice of moving, or rather, removing mountains whenever mountains are in the way of automobiles. A concrete mountain should present no insuperable problems. Failing that, try the Army Corps of Engineers, who among their strategies for causing the enemy difficulty would need to know how to produce a great deal of it by destroying a dam. Charge the cost to the Department of Defense Maneuvers Budget.

But don't forget, first, to get the reservoir level down to its minimum. We want no unnecessarily high water downstream.

Second, where will San Francisco get substitute water? The city will not need it. More water will be available every year at the present diversion point, below the Moccasin Creek Power Station. San Francisco has no wish to divert it earlier, because that would reduce hydroelectric revenue. And the city has bought and paid for, but does not use, five hundred thousand acre-feet of water storage space at the Don Pedro Reservoir -- half again as much as was stored in Hetch Hetchy Valley. More water will be available because it can no longer be wasted through evaporation from a reservoir that no longer exists. There will be some added evaporation when the Hetch Hetchy water increases the evaporation area at Don Pedro, but there will still be a new gain in water available.

Third, how about the power revenue? There is no question but that less power will be generated. Although the potential energy of Hetch Hetchy Valley water is a constant (an acre-foot of water can create a kilowatt-hour of electricity for every foot it falls), present facilities are not adequate to divert the entire flow the Tuolumne in the peak-flow months and to turn that entire potential into hydroelectric power, nor is the market presently scheduled to absorb all that electricity during the peak flow of the river. Moreover, there is nothing quite so nice as a reservoir full of water, with a valve below it to produce electricity in a hurry during the peak times of energy use.

Energy utilities have learned, however, how to survive without the delight of hydroelectricity for peaking power. They call it load management, and they can get customer cooperation by charging more for peak power and less for base power. They also know how to wheel power to each other's market areas, which can have different peak hours.

So when the Tuolumne River is flowing at its peak, San Francisco can hold all possible water in storage at the Lloyd and Eleanor reservoirs, divert as much a possible the flow through the lower tunnels, penstocks, and generators, and put the excess into the grid at dump-power rates. The city can raise the rates somewhat to its existing customers. And to make up for the difference, San Francisco can become a leader in energy conservation. It is hardly even a follower now. Invite Amory Lovins to town for advice on how to get in step and save money doing it.

This reform will not be free of hardship for city customers. But San Francisco has a debt to the nation. The city's total revenue from power from its Hetch Hetchy project's origin until now has far exceeded the cost of the facilities to produce it, and that excess has in effect been a free ride for San Francisco at a substantial cost to the people who have been denied the intangible benefits of Hetch Hetchy Valley for all those years. We are not talking about just "a campground," as Mayor Feinstein is reported to have described Hetch Hetchy. We are talking about an integral part of a national park that belongs not to San Francisco, not to California, not to the United States, but to the world as part of the World Heritage.'

San Francisco owes us this one. It took Hetch Hetchy under false pretenses in the first place. The city claimed that no other site would do, and that was false. It claimed that a beautiful lake would be produced. That, too, was false. Don Pedro Dam could have been built in the first place, and a major scenic resource could have been retained, lakeless and beautiful. The proponents claimed that the dam would be easily covered with grasses and vines. To date, not a vine or a blade. The city agreed not t sell its electricity to a private utility, and violated that promise. It agreed to build roads and trails to provide recreational use elsewhere, and indeed build a few and contributes to their maintenance. They are no substitute for a restored Hetch Hetchy.

In summary, Auburn Dam and the Peripheral Canal are not needed to substitute for Hetch Hetchy Valley's storage. That is pure smokescreen.

Power generation will be reduced, but compensatory steps are feasible, and national park do not exist to produce hydroelectric revenue for San Francisco. It will cost something to take the dam down, but not any six billion or anything within three orders of magnitude of that.

And it would cost San Francisco an infinite amount to build a separate-but-equal Hetch Hetchy Valley somewhere else and give it to whom it belongs.

What about the valley itself? What would it cost to restore it?

First, if whoever thought it would take the valley two years to dry out would go to the head of the reservoir next May, he or she would find that it had dried out too much already. The problem will not be to dry it out, but to keep it from blowing away.

Bear in mind that the lake became usable as a valley once before. Like Yosemite Valley, Hetch Hetchy Valley was a lake when the Tuolumne Glacier left the valley. The Merced Glacier left a spectacular Lake Yosemite when it retreated. The lake was half a mile deep beneath Glacier Point, at its head, and only one hundred feet or so deep beneath El Capitan. Slowly the Merced River filled the lake with sediment, but the lower twenty-five hundred feet of the lake could not be dried out. Ten thousand years later there is still a vast store of water in the interstices of the sediment, but that does not make Yosemite unusable. One excessive bit of drying out resulted when the El Capitan moraine -- the glacier's farthest reach in its Wisconsin stage -- was blasted and lowered a few feet. One theory has it that this lowering also lowered the water table in the valley and permitted an excessive encroachment of forest specie that do not like wet feet. And once a forest gets started! ! , its ever-deepening root system and its transpiration can accelerate drying out.

Hetch Hetchy Valley has a similar history. So it will probably be necessary to expedite the growth of grass for the first year. Ask the Park Service people in Yosemite which grasses to use. They are experts in growing it where hotels and highways used to be. The California Native Plant Society could give advice about what to sow first to control the dust.

Leave the rest to nature, and enjoy the spectacle of recovery. The jay and squirrel are experts at planting oaks. The wind can find the seeds that know how to grow wings rather than use a bird's. The wind also carries a whole inventory of spores, so there come the ferns, mosses, and lichens. Pines and other conifers know how to roll seeds downhill, and Hetch Hetchy Valley owes its existence to hills. Happily, Hetch Hetchy Valley is narrow, and the forces of renewal can creep across it.

Watch the process. Record it with word and sketch, as John Muir would have done, or with your video camera, so that you can report nature's progress to others before the day is over.

I lived in Yosemite Valley for three years have been visiting it for seventy. I have a rough idea of what might be brought to Hetch Hetchy Valley if people are too impatient to wait for nature.

Here is my list. Reintroduce oaks, maples, dogwood, mistletoe of course, azaleas, Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, incense cedar, yew, a lodgepole or two, and plant them in random order, not in regimented rows. Add frogs, crickets, and coyotes for night music. Daytime birds are welcome, especially canyon wrens. Squirrels too, gray squirrels preferred, because Muir liked them best. Foxes, raccoons, and bears, but a limited visa for bears that have become addicted to human dietary habits. Add an eager throng of tourists, and all the wise owls you can get.

To all of them, WELCOME BACK HOME!

Urge the National Park Service to begin work on a master plan for the restored Hetch Hetchy Valley right away, asking the public for ideas.

Above all, feel blessed that you are able to watch all this happen, and that your children may even have a hard time finding the bathtub ring the reservoir left on the valley walls, the dead zone that was caused by the ever-rising and falling reservoir. Lichens will come back, though slowly. Trees and shrubs will plant themselves on the ledges, with no fear of being drowned next June. Exfoliation of the granite walls will continue, and resume where it was interrupted. Rocks will fall, and the rockfall scars will soften the edges of the old bathtub rings, and lichens will soften the scars. Just don't let MCA paint the rocks the way they once did in Yosemite Valley to improve the background for a film they were shooting. The sign at the Yosemite entrances will no longer say "All campgrounds full" quite so soon. You will have a fair chance of getting a reservation without waiting a year or so at Hetch Hetchy Lodge or in the tent cabins at Camp Muir. From the Park Service ! ! visitor center there will be daily tours, led by rangers or docents, explaining each new achievement in Hetch Hetchy Valley's recovery. Wildlife will reoccupy each restored habitat. For a while, there won't be much campfire smoke because wood will not have grown long enough to die and become fuel. So you'll have a good shot a the stars each clear night. Wapama Falls will make sound again, because there will be people around to hear it. (Of course, it has been making noise all the time, but what good does it do?) Kolana Rock will be admired again in its splendor. The Tuolumne River will remember the score it used to play and you will hear its music again. Wary trout will lurk in it (the unwary having made some angler happy).

Creation will resume, and the annual deadly flooding will cease. Hetch Hetchy Valley will return to its original owner.


David Brower was Executive Director of the Sierra Club, 1952-64; Founder, Friends of the Earth, and Founder, Earth Island Institute. He presently serves as a volunteer on the Sierra Club Board of Directors.
A shorter version of this article appeared in Earth Island Journal in its summer, 1987 issue.