Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley was taken from the American people 100 years ago. It’s time to take it back.
Commentary by Spreck Rosekrans, Executive Director of Restore Hetch Hetchy
California’s water wars date back to the Gold Rush, when miners established the right of prior appropriation (a legal doctrine known in schoolyards as “first dibs”) for water as well as for veins of the precious ore. The wars continued into the early 20th century when a thirsty Los Angeles built aqueducts and pipelines that drained the Owens Valley in the eastern Sierra Nevada.
Controversy rages today over the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan, a proposal to divert water from mountain streams to California’s largest cities and farms while bypassing the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta. The BDCP is, of course, the successor to the 1982 peripheral canal campaign during which the Los Angeles Times not so subtly noted that the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct was already a “peripheral canal”.
It was not the pipeline but San Francisco’s proposal to build a dam and flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park that drew national attention in the early 20th century. National parks were new at the time, but they had already been widely embraced. More than 200 newspapers across the United States wrote editorials in opposition to building a dam in Yosemite. Despite this opposition San Francisco was successful and, when Pres. Woodrow Wilson signed the Raker Act on December 19, 1913, Hetch Hetchy’s fate was sealed.
Three years later, however, Congress, reflecting on the rancorous debate over the Raker Act, passed the National Park Service Act – a law designed to manage our parks for all Americans and to prevent any more such intrusions. Subsequent proposals to build dams in national parks, including Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, were defeated.
Over the course of the last 100 years, many have called for Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley to be restored. In 1987 Donald Hodel, President Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, called for restoration. The National Sierra Club has repeatedly issued proclamations in favor of returning Hetch Hetchy Valley to Yosemite National Park. And in 1999, Restore Hetch Hetchy was formed as a single issue organization dedicated to making it happen.
Studies by UC Davis, the Environmental Defense Fund and the California Department of Water Resources have confirmed that San Francisco’s water and power needs could be met without the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. The city would still rely primarily on Tuolumne River diversions, but San Francisco would make modest additional investments in surface and groundwater storage outside Yosemite, or could recycle and conserve water. Other California cities have successfully done far more to reduce the environmental impact of their water systems.
For more than a decade, Restore Hetch Hetchy has attempted to persuade San Francisco city officials to participate in constructive discussion on water system alternatives that would allow Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley to be restored. In 2012, a well-financed and fact-challenged campaign convinced voters not to allow public consideration of alternatives. So Restore Hetch Hetchy is taking the decision-making process to others outside the city.
Restore Hetch Hetchy is pursuing a bipartisan effort in Congress to amend the Raker Act. An amended Raker Act would not affect San Francisco’s other reservoirs in the Tuolumne River watershed, nor its pipelines and powerhouses. But an amended Raker Act would return Hetch Hetchy Valley to Yosemite National Park and the American people.
Restore Hetch Hetchy is also pursuing legal challenges to the ongoing operation of San Francisco’s water system as a violation of both state and federal law.
One hundred years ago, Congress made a serious environmental mistake. Restore Hetch Hetchy invites our fellow citizens to join us, to correct that mistake, and to make Yosemite National Park whole again.
Spreck Rosekrans is Executive Director of Restore Hetch Hetchy, a conservation organization whose mission is “to return the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park to its natural splendor – while continuing to meet the water and power needs of all communities that rely on the Tuolumne River.” For more information, visit www.hetchhetchy.org