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Located in California’s Yosemite National Park, the eight-mile-long Hetch Hetchy Reservoir supplies the city of San Francisco, 150 miles to the south, with much of its drinking water and electric power. Formed by the construction of the 410foot O’Shaughnessy Dam on the Tuolamne River where if flows through the steep walls of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, the reservoir represented one of the most massive construction feats of the early 20th century, promising an ample supply of fresh water and power to a city badly in need of both. To advocates of wilderness protection, however, the dam represented a dangerous incursion of the forces of progress into the nation’s wildlands. The heated political debate raged for more than a decade, and provided early environmental advocates with their first national rallying point.
Plans for a reservoir in the Hetch Hetchy Valley had been on drawing boards of San Francisco’s city planners since the late 1880s, but because the Valley was located within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park (created in 1890), the federal government rejected early requests, claiming the sanctity of the national park lands took precedence over the city’s desire for water. Such claims were made much more difficult to support however, when on April 18, 1906 San Francisco was extensively damaged by a massive earthquake. Far more damaging were the many fires that swept the city in the days that followed, and in the ensuing months, Mayor James D. Phelan and other city planners successfully brought pressure to bear on the federal government. In May 1908, Interior Secretary James R. Garfield approved the city’s plans for the damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley.
Opposition to the dam project rose almost immediately. Led by Sierra Club founder John Muir and Century magazine publisher Robert Underwood Johnson, opponents of the proposed dam called upon the government to hold a firm line against the invasion of national park lands for purposes of progress and profit. Muir and his allies quickly took to referring to Mayor Phelan and other dam supporters “Satan and Company” and “the money changers,” openly suggesting that their motives were driven by greed rather than a desire for a stable city water supply. Drowning the beautiful and pristine valley beneath several hundred feet of water in order to provide water and electricity for a distant city was, for Muir, tantamount to the destruction of a holy temple.
Proponents of the dam, including President Theodore Roosevelt’s powerful Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot, saw the issue differently. They argued that few people had ever set foot in the remote Hetch Hetchy Valley-or ever would. Damming the valley to create a dependable source of water and power for citizens represented the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and because of this, issues such as aesthetic beauty or the sanctity of the National Parks should be secondary. Further, since San Francisco’s current water and electric demands were met by the powerful Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Progressive Era politicians like Roosevelt and Pinchot saw municipal hydroelectric projects like the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir as an important step toward democratizing control of public utilities.
Debate over the dam proposal inspired a heated national dialogue over the proper role of America’s wilderness areas. Muir and other wilderness advocates were able to establish Hetch Hetchy as a powerful symbol of the fate of America’s remaining wildlands, and the American public seemed for the first time receptive to the notion of protecting these lands. “The conscience of the whole country has been aroused from sleep,” Muir wrote. Members of Congress were barraged by letters and telegrams from all parts of the country, as an obscure mountain valley became the centerpiece of a national political debate.
Despite powerful opposition, on December 6, 1913 Congress passed the bill authorizing the damming of the Tuolamne River at Hetch Hetchy. Muir and others who had fought to preserve the valley suffered a crushing short-term defeat, but the Hetch Hetchy controversy had galvanized opposition to further incursion in the nation’s wildlands, reversing a centuries-old mindset that unquestioningly valued technological progress over wilderness preservation. Perhaps more importantly, the controversy had given rise to the first stirrings of a national environmental movement.
- Kendrick A. Clements, “Politics and the Park: San Francisco’s Fight for Hetch Hetchy” Pacific Historical Review (May 1979);
- Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (Yale University Press, 2001);
- Robert W. Righter, The Battle Over Hetch Hetchy: America’s Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism (Oxford University Press, 2005);
- John W. Simpson, Dam!: Water, Power, Politics, and Preservation in Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite National Park (Pantheon, 2005).