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Is It Quixotic To Work Towards Restoration of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park?


Want to see Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley restored? Support Restore Hetch Hetchy and plan to join next summer's Muir March.

Many long have dreamed of the day that the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park would be drained of its reservoir and allowed to mirror the more-renowned Yosemite Valley. Those dreams are kept alive by the folks behind Restore Hetch Hetchy.

This non-profit organization sponsors various events throughout the year to keep enthusiasm behind the efforts to seek the demolition of the O'Shaughnessy Dam that holds back the Tuolumne River waters that fill Hetch Hetchy. There was a film festival in Los Angeles last month, one in Berkely, California earlier this month, and annual dinners, rallies and even marches throughout the year to garner support for the movement.

Back in August the folks at Restore Hetch Hetchy staged the second annual "Muir's March" to raise both awareness about restoration of the valley and dollars to help keep the dream alive. The 45-mile hike went from Hodgdon Meadows to the top of the O'Shaughnessy Dam and raised more than $30,000 for the organization.

"...we were walking the terrain of John Muir's inspiration and he was lending us his voice," Ekow Edzie wrote in the non-profit's fall Restoration Report. "Whether raising money in the months leading up to Muir's March or hailing fellow hikers along the trail we could be heard echoing the words of Muir himself: 'The Hetch Hetchy Valley is a grand landscape garden, one of Nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples.'

"The money raised by Muir's March is a crucial resource for Restore Hetch Hetchy's campaign to restore this lost American treasure," continued Mr. Edzie. "But it is the conversation and commitment of all of us that will ultimately create the grassroots thunder that will one day bring John Muir's 'grand landscape garden' back to life."

In recent years there have been a number of calls for the valley to be restored. One came five years ago from former Interior Secretary Don Hodel, who served under President Reagan. Mr. Hodel made a case for the draining of the reservoir in an op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle.

"The arguments for restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley are overwhelming. Ultimately, they will prevail," Mr. Hodel wrote. "San Francisco may, for a time, withstand the public and federal pressure and continue its unfair use of this part of Yosemite National Park, but sooner or later the hammer will fall."

Many of the questions that arise over the issue of dismantling the O'Shaughnessy Dam -- such as where would San Francisco get water and power from? -- are addressed on the Restore Hetch Hetchy website.

For instance, on the question of power generation:

San Francisco operates three medium-sized hydro-electric power plants in the Tuolumne River watershed - Kirkwood, Moccasin, and Holm. Draining the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir will reduce power generation at these by about 20% - an average of about 280 million kWh per year. This is a small part of the output of a standard combined-cycle power plant. It would result in a loss of approximately $10 million in annual power sales, but would not impact power delivery to San Francisco.

And on the task of actually restoring the valley after nearly a century under water:

As the reservoir is drained and the valley floor is exposed, aggressive replanting of native plants will take place as soon as the soil dries sufficiently. Revegetation will consist in planting a mixture of native trees and shrubs consisting of black oaks, white alder, black cottonwood, Douglas fir, dogwood, willow, azalea, manzanita, and ceanothus. The various species of trees and shrubs will be planted in areas where those species originally occurred, along with an understory of herbaceous plants.

Native bunch grasses and sedges would be collected and propagated before the reservoir is drained. These will be planted in meadows and oak woodlands as these habitats return following drainage. Complete restoration will involve planting approximately 100,000 trees and shrubs, dense planting of bunch grasses, and widespread seeding of native meadow and woodland species for ground cover.

It's not too early to block out time to participate in the 3rd Annual Muir March, which is scheduled for next July 17-23. Keep an eye on the Restore Hetch Hetchy website for details. Also, a restoration rally and festival is scheduled for July 23 at the O'Shaughnessy Dam.

In the meantime, check out this short video to see an artist's conception of how the valley might be restored.

And to see how the valley looked before it was flooded, check out the archival photos on this page.

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I have to be honest: I'm not sold that this should be done, especially in light of power generation and the fact that the damage has already been done.

Hydro power is still the most-proven non-carbon energy generation system in the country. It has been around for more than 100 years and is pretty efficient.

It is damaging to the environment to be sure, but so does burning fossil fuels (including natural gas, which would need to be burned to replace the hydroelectric production produced by Hetch Hetchy). And unlike fossil fuels, you can mitigate the effects of the damming if you try.

Plus I don't trust the power generation reduction numbers put forth by Restore Hetch Hetchy. That series of dams produces 1.7 billion KwH to the city of San Francisco. That energy is produced primarily by gravity, the reservoir acts as a giant funnel to store and force all that weight across the turbines. It is true that the natural forces of the river will continue to feed the downstream dams & power plants, but I can't imagine removal of the big reservoir would only impact that power generation by 20%.

This country has tremendous potential to increase its hydroelectric power capacity and cut its dependence on foreign oil and reduce its carbon footprint. Much of this potential rests in utilizing existing, non-generating dams, and improving efficiencies at existing hydroelectric facilities. And because we're so much smarter at reducing the environmental impact of such constructs, I think the environmental community has to reconsider its stance against hydro power (I feel the same about nuclear power).

When you weigh the global damage caused by our fossil fuel problem vs. the cost involved in restoring Hetch Hetchy (a landscape already destroyed by our previous errors), I'm not sold.

Magnificent landscapes such as Yosemite Valley and Hetch Hetchy are more valued now than they were 100 years ago. When I was a ranger-naturalist at Yosemite 50 years ago, we often featured archival photos of Hetch Hetchy in our nature talks. It's wonderful that restoration is within reach after all these years. Bravo to "Restore Hetch Hetchy" and their good work!

I think I remember reading somewhere that Hetch Hetchy has become badly silted over the years. Does anyone know if that is true or am I all wet? (Sorry 'bout that pun.)

If it is true, how will the accumulation of silt affect restoration efforts?

This is definitely worth doing. They will have to be prepared to fight alien plants which are good at taking over disturbed habitat. Acres of newly exposed silt will be ideal for weeds.

For Barky who questions the loss of only 20% of the hydropower, I suggest googling EDF's "Paradise Regained" report and checking out the section on hydropower. If that does not help email me at [email protected].

"Paradise Regained" also explains how restoration would relatively small (though still very important) impacts on the ability to deliver high quality Tuolumne River water to San Francisco and other Bay Area cities.

The NPS report on restoration (late 1980's I think) indictaes there would be little siltation.

Re Barky's question about the loss of hydropower - Google EDF's "Paradise Regained" report and see how they loss would be only 20%, as well as why the loss of Tuolumne water deliveries would be even less. If you have more questions, email me at [email protected].

Re siltation - the NPS report (late 1980's) indicates that little siltation has occurred.

Yes, I think it is quixotic to work towards restoration of the Hetch Hetchy Valley. I agree with some of the other comments and that is: the damage has already been done. Leave well enough alone and be happy with the National & State Parks and National & State Forests that have preserved the wonders of nature. Let's just not make the same mistake again in the future.

If you think of land conservation and protection within an emergency medicine metaphor, triage is an important concept. Where should we focus our limited human and financial resources? It's important to keep in mind that it's better to protect something that is undisturbed before focusing on restoration. When I think of the cost of restoring Hetch Hetchy ($20 billion is one estimate,) that money could be used to buy enourmous tracts of unprotected land, such as most of the privately owned intact blue oak woodland of the Sierra foothills. There is no real reason to rush restoration on HH. Apart from willow flycatchers, there aren't critical animal species that need that habitat restored. Mostly we want to restore it for our own emotional needs. I hope that someday that might happen, but we should keep in mind that if we focus on that one small area, we might lose much more elsewhere.

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