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timeline of the ongoing battle over hetch hetchy

  • 1871 - John Muir first visits Hetch Hetchy

  • 1873 - John Muir first writes about the beauty of "Hetch Hetchy Valley," in the Boston Weekly Transcript, March 25, 1873, an article later expanded in the Overland Monthly in the same year.

  • 1882 - City of San Francisco begins to consider Hetch Hetchy Valley as one of several places for the location of a reservoir.

  • 1890 - Yosemite National Park is established, including Yosemite Valley's less famous cousin, Hetch Hetchy.

  • 1890 - San Francisco Mayor James Phelan first proposes damming the Hetch Hetchy Valley to create a reservoir for San Francisco.

  • 1892 - Sierra Club formed.

  • 1901 - Mayor James Phelan first files for water rights in the Hetch Hetchy Valley - using his own name.

  • 1903 - Mayor Phelan applies to the Interior Department for a permit for water storage in Hetch Hetchy Valley. Secretary of the Interior Ethan Hitchcock promptly denies the request, since Hetch Hetchy is in a national park. The City of San Francisco appeals, arguing it will only enhance the beauty of the park to have a reservoir. (Later, Muir would respond to this argument thus: "As well may damming New York's Central Park would enhance its beauty!") By the end of the year, Secretary Hitchcock denies the appeal.

  • 1904 - First of many Sierra Club "High Trips" to include Hetch Hetchy Valley.

  • 1905 - Mayor Phelan again applies for water rights to Hetch Hetchy, and the permit is once again denied. John Muir and William E. Colby launch 8 - year campaign to prevent Hetch Hetchy from being dammed for a reservoir.

  • 1906 - The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire gives new impetus to the idea of enlarging the city's water supply. James Garfield succeeds Hitchcock as Secretary of the Interior in November.

  • 1907 - San Francisco city officials meet with Secretary Garfield on July 24 to lobby for damming Hetch Hetchy. On August 30, the Sierra Club board of directors adopt a resolution addressed to the Secretary of the Interior strongly opposing damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley. Club leaders begin campaign in earnest against destroying Hetch Hetchy, urging the Club membership to write to President Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Garfield to oppose damming Hetch Hetchy Valley. That fall, John Muir, age 69, with his friend William Keith, re-visits Hetch Hetchy Valley, after a 12-year absence.

  • 1908 - On May 7, the City files a petition asking the Secretary of the Interior to reopen San Francisco's application for water rights, requesting both Lake Eleanor and Hetch Hetchy Valley. The City's application promised to develop Lake Eleanor first to full capacity before beginning development of the Hetch Hetchy site - a promise never fulfilled. Muir writes in the Sierra Club Bulletin that to dam Hetch Hetchy Valley one "may 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." Willing to compromise, he urges President Roosevelt to give the city only Lake Eleanor. Muir sends a message to the 1908 Governors Conference on Conservation: "Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded. Thus the Yosemite Park, the beauty glory of California and the Nation, Nature's own mountain wonderland, has been attacked by spoilers ever since it was established, and this strife I suppose, must go on as part of the eternal battle between right and wrong." But the City's permit application is approved by Secretary of the Interior James Garfield, who had never visited Hetch Hetchy, only four days after he received it. Congress soon schedules hearings, and the Sierra Club begins producing circulars opposing the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley, and schedules summer outings to Hetch Hetchy for 1908 and 1909.

  • 1909 - In congressional hearings, the City reverses itself and insists that it must have both Lake Eleanor and Hetch Hetchy Valley. Meanwhile, the Spring Valley Water Company again offers a buyout to the City of San Francisco - a far less costly option than building the Hetch Hetchy system. Sierra Club representatives testify at the Senate hearings on the issue, and senators and congressmen receive hundreds of letters from all over the country opposing the destruction of Hetch Hetchy Valley. Sierra Club leaders form a new organization, "The Society for the Preservation of National Parks" with notable figures across the country as leaders, to further publicize the campaign against the dam. John Muir and William E. Colby join the Sierra Club Outing of 1909 to Tuolumne Meadows and Hetch Hetchy Valley, which also includes notables such as poet Harriet Monroe, Dr. William Linn Jepson, founder of California botany, and other prominent scientists. Congress recommends that President Taft appoint a special commission to investigate the Hetch Hetchy issue, thus avoiding an immediate decision and delaying the City's efforts.

  • 1910 - After considering the commission's report, and visiting Hetch Hetchy Valley personally, in February Taft's Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger suspends the interior Department's approval for the Hetch Hetchy right-of-way, and asks the city to "show cause" why Hetch Hetchy Valley should not be removed from the Garfield grant. The City demands a hearing, held May 26. The Interior Secretary asks the City to prepare more data, and to make a study of other water sources sufficient for the Bay Area, and to do a thorough evaluation of a dam's damage to the scenic features of Hetch Hetchy Valley. Poll of Sierra Club members votes 589 - 161 (79%) in support the Club's position opposing the use of Hetch Hetchy Valley as a reservoir.

  • 1911 - Secretary Ballinger resigns in March, citing failing health. President Taft appoints Walter L. Fisher as the new Secretary of the Interior. That October, Secretary Fisher visits Hetch Hetchy, with a party that includes both San Francisco advocates and defenders of the Valley.


  • 1912 - In November, Secretary Fisher convenes a hearing on Hetch Hetchy, with advocates for both sides testifying. At the conclusion of the hearing, Secretary Fisher turns over all the testimony to his advisory board, all professional engineers. Woodrow Wilson is elected President, and would appoint former San Francisco City Attorney Franklin Lane as Secretary of the Interior. Lane supports damming Hetch Hetchy, though he never visited it. San Francisco renews its campaign to dam Hetch Hetchy; hires Michael M. O'Shaughnessy as city engineer.

  • 1913 - In February, the Interior secretary's engineer's report recommends damming Hetch Hetchy, though acknowledging other options existed. On March 1, three days before leaving office, Secretary Fisher decides that he lacks the statutory authority to grant a permit to San Francisco, thus throwing the decision to Congress. Over the rest of the year, Congress holds hearings, and the City lobbies hard. The New York Times repeatedly opposes damming of Hetch Hetchy, along with most other newspapers in the country. Senators receive thousands of letters opposing destruction of Hetch Hetchy Valley. But at the end of the year, Congress nonetheless passes the Raker Bill, allowing flooding of Hetch Hetchy Valley. The bill stipulates that the city could not sell water or power for resale. President Woodrow Wilson signs the bill on December 19. John Muir says he is "glad the fight for the Tuolumne Yosemite is finished," and hopes that "some sort of compensation must surely come out of this dark damn-dam-damnation."

  • 1914 - Last Sierra Club outing to Hetchy Hetchy Valley. John Muir dies on December 24.

  • 1923 - Construction of O'Shaughnessy Dam completed, at a cost of $100 million and the lives of 67 men and one woman. The project transports water 160 miles by gravity alone to customers in San Francisco and 32 other Bay Area communities.

  • 1924 - San Francisco voters approve a bond proposition for $10 million to pay for a series of tunnels that would deliver water through the Sierra and Coast Range mountains.

  • 1928 - San Francisco voters approve $24 million in bonds to help further the Hetch Hetchy Dam Project.

  • 1934 - Completion and dedication of the Hetch Hetchy system.

  • 1938 - The O'Shaughnessy Dam is raised to its current 430-foot height.

  • 1947 - San Francisco voters approve $25 million for a second pipeline for the Hetch Hetchy system.

  • 1955 - Sierra Club publishes a film, Two Yosemites, filmed and narrated by David Brower, a passionate portrayal of the beauty of Yosemite Valley contrasted with the ugliness of the low-water Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

  • 1961 - San Francisco voters approve $115 million in bonds to expand the existing hetch Hetchy system.

  • 1970 - Sierra Club board of directors recommends removal, rather than an expensive restoration or reconstruction, of both O'Shaughnessy Dam and Eleanor Dam. The Board also stated: "The question of how to remove O'Shaughnessy Dam, and the problems of how to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley to its once magnificent grandeur, should be studied in depth. The studies should include the problem of plant succession as the valley is drained, the removal of silt, and the practical alternatives available to San Francisco if the Hetch Hetchy water supply is lost."

  • 1987 - Secretary of the Interior Don Hodel suggests removal of O'Shaughnessy Dam and the restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley. Sierra Club Board re-affirms its 1908 policy, and adopts a further policy supporting taking a "long view" of the issue, and endorsing feasibility studies. Sierra Club establishes a national Hetch Hetchy Task Force with Sally Reid as chair.

  • 1988 - Legislative funding to study restoration of Hetch Hetchy is defeated in Congress.

  • 1990 - Sierra Club continues to advocate restoration; sponsors a display, "Restore Hetch Hetchy" at the Yosemite Centennial Symposium.

  • 1994 - Republican congressmen propose that the City of San Francisco should pay the federal government $25 million per year, since the city generates an average of $38 million annually from selling hydroelectric power from Hetch Hetchy to other municipalities. California Democrats in Congress kill the proposal.

  • 1997 - The Sierra Club's California/Nevada Regional Conservation Committee establishes a Hetch Hetchy Task Force with Ron Good as chair.

  • 1998 - Harold Wood of the Sierra Club Hetch Hetchy Task Force creates a feature devoted to the restoration of Hetch Hetchy on the Sierra Club website.

  • 1999 - Leaders from several environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, join together to form a new non-profit organization, Restore Hetch Hetchy, to focus exclusively on the goal of restoring Hetch Hetchy, and establish a website advocating restoration at http://www.hetchhetchy.org/.

  • 2000 - Restore Hetch Hetchy gains tax-exempt, tax-deductible status to pursue educational efforts.

  • 2001 - Restore Hetch Hetchy raises funds; hires Ron Good as Executive Director to further pursue a feasibility study for the restoration of Hetch Hetchy. Restore Hetch Hetchy invites people to join as members. Sierra Club Hetch Hetchy Restoration Task Force continues its efforts.

  • 2002 - October 19 - New York Times advocates feasibility study to see whether it would be economically and hydrologically feasible to remove the dam that created Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park; says San Francisco's water needs could be met in other ways. [The NY Times seventh editorial on Hetch Hetchy, but the first in 89 years!

  • 2003 - Restore Hetch Hetchy releases a new video/DVD explaining its campaign to restore Hetch Hetchy. A University of California Master's thesis indicates that it is feasible to restore Hetch Hetchy - the first of several recent studies to make this determination. View video on Youtube.

  • 2004 - Bush Administration proposes raising the rent for Hetch Hetchy from $30,000 to $8 million a year. The annual rent of $30,000 San Francisco pays for Hetch Hetchy has not changed since the 1920s. Nothing happens.

  • 2004 - September - Environmental Defense publishes a new study that shows that Hetch Hetchy can be restored in a way that would continue to supply the Bay Area with the same high-quality drinking water from the Tuolumne River. study is accompanied by a new campaign and a virtual tour of Hetch Hetchy, narrated by John Muir himself.

  • 2004 - August - September. - Sacramento Bee publishes a series of 14 editorials and additional news articles on the theme of restoring Hetch Hetchy Reclaimed Series

  • 2004 - November - California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's Secretary of Resources announces the state will study restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite - Study will  look at costs for replacing water storage and economic benefits of restoring public access to unique valley, but will only use existing studies.

  • 2005 - Restore Hetch Hetchy publishes a feasibility study, Finding the Way Back to Hetch Hetchy.

  • 2005 - Sacramento Bee "Hetch Hetchy Reclaimed" series wins the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing

  • 2006 - July - California State government study of restoring Hetch Hetchy confirms earlier studies by Sierra Club, Environmental Defense, Restore Hetch Hetchy, and others, that restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park is feasible and practical, and can be achieved with no harm to San Francisco Bay Area water and power users and Central Valley irrigation districts. The debate now revolves around cost, not feasibility. Sierra Club Conservation Director Bruce Hamilton says that the battle over Hetch Hetchy Valley restoration " illustrates the tenacity of this movement and the fact that the spirit and ideas and idealism of John Muir never died... It's a piece of unfinished work that John Muir left to his heirs."

  • 2006 - October - Hetch Hetchy Informational Hearing (Windows Media)
    Watch the complete three-hour October 10, 2006 Hetch Hetchy Informational Hearing held by the California Assembly Standing Committee on Water, Parks & Wildlife, from the webcast archive by The California Channel.

  • 2007 - January - Interior Department includes $7 million for further study of the benefits of restoring Hetch Hetchy in its proposed budget. In response, some politicians say they don't even want to study the issue, while others say we need more information before making any decisions. Congress nixed the study proposal.

  • 2008 - Restore Hetch Hetchy's Vision for restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley is succinctly and visually explained in a one minute YouTube video. Executive Director Mike Marshall explains that it is the Tuolumne River that provides San Francisco's water supply, thus making feasible the draining Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park. Mark Cedarborg, RHH restoreation experts explains visually how it is posible to restore the meadow and forest environments some 90 years after they were drowned.

  • 2009 - January - Restore Hetch Hetchy, which began as an offshoot of the Sierra Club, hired a new executive director, Mike Marshall, who plans a new strategy in the effort to restore the valley. The group, moving from Sonora to San Francisco, plans to launch a grassroots campaign to educate San Franciscans on the environmental destruction wrought by Hetch Hetchy dam. The first step is explaining that tearing it down won't mean losing their water. Once they understand that, we think the country's self-appraised "greenest city" will change their thinking about continuing to destroy a valley in a major National Park.
    The group also begins "Muir's March," an annual fundraising effort where hikers take pledges for hiking the terrain of John Muir's inspiration each summer.

  • 2010 - Campaign organization Restore Hetch Hetchy continues the effort to educate the public, and especially the citizens of San Francisco, about the viability of restoring Hetch Hetchy while continuing to supply water to San Francisco. The group reports the followig poll results of Registered Voters of San Francisco:
    Margin of Error: 4% +/- July 2010
    If Restoration = Increase in Water/Power Rates 42% Support 43% Oppose 14% Undecided
    If Restoration = NO Increase in Water/Power Rates 59% Support 31% Oppose 9 % Undecided
    Poll conducted by David Binder Research, Inc.

  • 2011- July - The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for determines in re-licensing proceedings that the Don Pedro Reservoir’s effect on the Tuolumne River cannot be separated from that of other system reservoirs – in particular Lake Lloyd, Lake Eleanor and the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, all owned and operated by the City and County of San Francisco. FERC concurred with comments filed by Restore Hetch Hetchy as well as by other state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the State Water Board - recommending that the geographic scope of the environmental impact analysis for the relicensing of Don Pedro extend upstream to Hetch Hetchy and downstream to the San Francisco Bay.

  • 2012 - February - The San Francisco Examiner reports: Dam opponents eager to collect signatures for ballot measure

  • 2012 - February - Sacramento Bee writes: Will San Francisco Vote to Drain Hetch Hetchy?

  • 2012 - November - Voters in San Francisco defeat a local ballot proposition, Propostion F, the "Water and Environemnt Plan" which proposed to have the City of San Frnacisco prepare a two-phase study that would evaluate how to drain the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir so that it can be restored by the National Park Service and identify replacement water and power sources. See official Voter Information Pamphlet (PDF) from DEPARTMENT OF ELECTIONS City and County of San Francisco www.sfelections.org which contains arguments pro and con the measure. The ballot measure asked for a study and nothing more. Could the dam be removed and could the needed water really be stored downstream? Is it feasible? What would it cost? The defeat does not mean the battle is over. Supporters of the group Restore Hetch Hetchy are regrouping to continue the nearly 100 year fight.

For a comprehensive history of this epic battle, still waging, see:

The Battle Over Hetch Hetchy: America's Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism by Robert W. Righter (2005)



contact information

For information about this website, e-mail: harold.wood@sierraclub.org


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