Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy vs. California's Need for Water

John Muir couldn’t save the Hetch Hetchy Valley from being flooded. San Francisco needed the water. Now the Hetch Hetchy water fight resumes - farmers vs. cities.
By Staff,
Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley is now a reservoir created by the O’Shaughnessy Dam.

The Hetch Hetchy Valley may be the least visited part of Yosemite National Park. Why? For one, it’s submerged beneath 300 feet of water.

John Muir Couldn’t Save Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley

The valley wasn’t always underwater. Back in the early 1900s when naturalist and conservationist John Muir roamed through the Yosemite Valleys, he praised the Hetch Hetchy’s beauty as “a grand landscape garden, one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples.” Even after Muir won the fight to preserve Yosemite as a national park in 1890, and later to expand that protection to the Sierra Nevada high country, in the end he couldn’t save the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Why Did We Flood a National Park Valley?

In 1906 an earthquake struck San Francisco, resulting in many terrible fires. After the flames had been put out, the city began looking for a higher capacity water source. They found a solution in damming the Tuolumne River and flooding the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Secretary of the Interior at the time James R. Garfield (President Garfield’s son) granted San Francisco development rights in 1908 to move the project forward. That permission came much to the outrage of the Sierra Club and Muir, who fought vehemently against the decision only to be defeated.

Since the dam was to be built on federal land, an act of Congress was required to authorize the project. Their approval came in 1913 when the Senators and Representatives passed the Raker Act, which allowed flooding of the valley. President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill sealing the Hetch Hetchy Valley’s fate.

Construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam began in 1919 and four years later the valley was completely underwater.

The O’Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy Valley. Photo by Gloria Wadzinski

The Fight Over Hetch Hetchy Water Resumes - Farms vs. Cities

California’s drought continues to ravage the state’s agriculture, industry and more. And despite residents finally heeding Governor Jerry Brown’s request to cut back on their water usage, the area is in trouble. As its water woes continue there’s more and more debate over which cities will get access to the ever-dwindling supply of water. The crisis has residents wondering who will get access to the remaining liquid.

Journalist Bryant Osborn, writing for the Star Exponent argues that among those lucky recipients will be San Francisco and its urban sprawl. Why? He looks back in history to see what has happened in the past to see what’s likely to take place in the future.

Among the water supplies drying up after California’s drought conditions is the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. This manmade body of water located within the Yosemite National Park boundaries provides 80 percent of the water for the 2.6 million individuals living within the greater San Francisco Bay area.

California farmers also desperately need water. Will there be enough to accommodate them as well?

Who Will Get the Water?

Bryant thinks he knows the answer: “The moral of this story is that whatever San Francisco wants, San Francisco gets. San Francisco (and other politically powerful urban areas) will not experience big cutbacks in their water,” he wrote.

Unfortunately, that means that California’s $45 billion agriculture industry, located largely in the Central Valley region, doesn’t get the water it needs. Because the area isn’t as highly populated as the urban regions, it doesn’t have enough voters to turn the tide. Thus, the rich farmland is meeting with devastating repercussions. Already, farmers were cornered into leaving roughly half a million acres fallow this year, a necessary action that causes food prices to skyrocket across the country.

This conundrum causes trouble in the present, but it begs questions of the future: Will the drought lead people to be even more cautious about water resources in California? Once this difficult time is passed, will people want to dam more rivers to be ready for the next drought? And if that’s the case, what majestic natural areas will be sacrificed next to meet more immediate needs—namely, survival?

Related Article: John Muir's Life | Damming Yosemite Park's Hetch Hetchy Valley