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Can, And Should, The Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park Be Restored?

Wapama Falls, one of the scenic highlights of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, is out of sight to most Yosemite visitors. Photo from state of California's 2006 Hetch Hetchy Restoration Study.

When Robert Hanna looks out across the massive reservoir that has swallowed the more than 8-mile-long Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park, he thinks of a tremendous gift that could be given the world.

Though it's missing a Half Dome, this twin to the Yosemite Valley has been described by none other than John Muir as "one of nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples.”

But since 1923 Hetch Hetchy has been submerged, a victim of sorts to thirsty San Franciscans, but one that more than a few believe should be drained and brought back to life.

"I’m a new father. I have a three-week-old daughter and I have a 19-month-old daughter, and I think you really capture the importance of doing whatever you can now to leave the world a better place for them, and there is no other opportunity in the world to give back another Yosemite Valley to the people," says Mr. Hanna, whose great-great-grandfather was none other than John Muir.

“I think that’s really important to me. I was blessed enough to be raised in a family where the natural beauty in our national parks, in our state parks, it’s important to us," he continues. "And I think that this is an opportunty that we have to change the world, and I think that our children, our grandchildren down the line, will look back when this is finished and say 'Thank god they acted.'"

Beneath the reservoir backed up by the O'Shaugnessy Dam that was finished in 1923, and raised by 85 more feet in 1938, are 360,000 acre-feet of water to meet the needs of San Francisco’s residents. Submerged by that water is a granite-lined canyon once graced by feathery waterfalls and split by a placid river, the Tuolumne, running through its meadows and forests.

Can that vision be brought to life?

Those at Restore Hetch Hetchy believe so, and without depriving San Francisco of a drop of water. But unconvinced of that possibility is U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the senior senator from California who a few years back saw that $7 million in federal funding for a study into draining the valley was removed from the Interior Department’s budget.

Wapama Falls, Yosemite National Park
Wapama Falls as it appeared in 1910 in Hetch Hetchy, by Herbert Gleason, via Sierra Club.

In July, in a move to showcase support and draw attention to restoring the valley, Restore Hetch Hetchy is organizing a number of hikes across Yosemite. The guided treks will traverse scenic areas, literally and figuratively following in John Muir’s footsteps. Through mid-June nearly 60 people had signed up for one of the hikes -- there are seven-day, four-day, and one-day options. While that might not seem like many in a state as populated as California, the executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy sees it as a veriable outburst of support for the cause.

“The fact that we’ve gone from 14 people last year to 57 people so far this year, reflects an amazing expansion of support for restoring Hetch Hetchy," said Mike Marshall. "Understand that each group is limited to either 12 or 15 people, depending on the wilderness permit we have. We have two guides on each trip. The very nature of doing events that culminate in Yosemite like these do restricts the size of the number of participants."

How realistic, though, is it to discuss draining the reservoir and bringing Hetch Hetchy back to how it appeared in the early 1900s, before the dam arose? A number of studies, have explored the issue, but the last, published by the state of California in 2006, says a number of questions remain unresolved.

"The existing studies provide initial conceptual information on Hetch Hetchy Valley restoration, but do not contain enough collective detail to reach conclusions about the feasibility or acceptability of Hetch Hetchy Valley restoration," the 68-page report notes. "Future studies could further refine and assess technical, cost, and environmental factors in greater detail."

Sen. Feinstein seized on that report to buttress her opposition to draining Hetch Hetchy, saying the financial cost alone was too much.

"The state of California Department of Water Resources report confirms that dismantling O'Shaugnessy Dam and draining the Hetch Hetchy reservoir are unwarranted and the cost is indefensible, particularly given the tremendous infrastructure needs facing our State," the senator said in July 2006. "The State note estimates it would cost $3 billion to $10 billion to drain the reservoir and offset the 360,000 acre-feet of high quality water that Hetch Hetchy provides. With the state's infrastructure in serious disrepair, this is certainly not the highest priority for California's taxpayers."

Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park 1910
The Hetch Hetchy Valley as it appeared from Surprise Point in 1908. Photo by Isaiah West Taber via Sierra Club.

Of course, as that report also noted, more studies are needed into the exact costs of restoring Hetch Hetchy, and no doubt a good deal of the costs that concern Sen. Feinstein would be shouldered by the federal government.

And then, of course, what value nature? Not the economic value of nature -- though many reports attest to how national parks are economic drivers for their surrounding communities and states -- but the intrinsic value of scenic grandeur and its impact on the soul?

To get a sense for what lies submergered in Hetch Hetchy, here's how John Muir described the valley for the Sierra Club Bulletin in January 1908:

After my first visit, in the autumn of 1871, I have always called it the Tuolumne Yosemite, for it is a wonderfully exact counterpart of the great Yosemite, not only in its crystal river and sublime rocks and waterfalls, but in the gardens, groves, and meadows of its flower park-like floor. The floor of Yosemite is about 4,000 feet above the sea, the Hetch-Hetchy floor about 3,700; the walls of both are of gray granite, rise abruptly out of the flowery grass and groves are sculptured in the same style, and in both every rock is a glacial monument. Standing boldly out from the south wall is a strikingly picturesque rock called "Kolana" by the Indians, the outermost of a group 2300 feet high, corresponding with the Cathedral Rocks of Yosemite both in relative position and form. On the opposite side of the Valley, facing Kolana, there is a counterpart of the El Capitan of Yosemite rising sheer and plain to a height of 1800 feet, and over its massive brow flows a stream which makes the most graceful fall I have ever seen. From the edge of the cliff it is perfectly free in the air for a thousand feet, then breaks up into a ragged sheet of cascades among the boulders of an earthquake talus. It is in all its glory in June, when the snow is melting fast, but fades and vanishes toward the end of summer. The only fall I know with which it may fairly be compared is the Yosemite Bridal Veil; but it excels even that favorite fall both in height and fineness of fairy-airy beauty and behavior. Lowlanders are apt to suppose that mountain streams in their wild career over cliffs lose control of themselves and tumble in a noisy chaos of mist and spray. On the contrary, on no part of their travels are they more harmonious and self-controlled.

Hetch Hetchy Valley from Sunrise Trail
The view of Hetch Hetchy from the Southside Trail, taken in 1912 by Herbert Gleason, via Sierra Club.

Imagine yourself in Hetch Hetchy on a sunny day in June, standing waist-deep in grass and flowers (as I have oftentimes stood), while the great pines sway dreamily with scarce perceptible motion. Looking northward across the Valley you see a plain, gray granite cliff rising abruptly out of the gardens and groves to a height of 1800 feet, and in front of it Tueeulala's silvery scarf burning with irised sun-fire in every fiber. In the first white outburst of the stream at the head of the fall there is abundance of visible energy, but it is speedily hushed and concealed in divine repose, and its tranquil progress to the base of the cliff is like that of downy feathers in a still room. Now observe the fineness and marvelous distinctness of the various sun-illumined fabrics into which the water is woven; they sift and float from form to form down the face of that grand gray rock in so leisurely and unconfused a manner that you can examine their texture, and patterns and tones of color as you would a piece of embroidery held in the hand. Near the head of the fall you see groups of booming, comet-like masses, their solid, white heads separate, their tails like combed silk interlacing among delicate shadows, ever forming and dissolving, worn out by friction in their rush through the air. Most of these vanish a few hundred feet below the summit, changing to the varied forms of cloud-like drapery. Near the bottom the width of the fall has increased from about twenty-five to a hundred feet. Here it is composed of yet finer tissues, and is still without a trace of disorder -- air, water and sunlight woven into stuff that spirits might wear. 

Regaining that landscape, believes Mr. Marshall, is within reach, Sen. Feinstein notwithstanding.

"Well, Sen. Feinstein is indeed slightly misunderstanding the situation and has longstanding opposition to restoring the Hetch Hetchy. Thankfully she’s not the decision-maker. And that’s where I think a lot of people have been confused in the past, that only Congress could change the situation," he explains during our conversation.

"In fact our legal research has shown that the voters of San Francisco, the people of San Francisco, can vote to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley, and that’s an electorate in which Dianne Feinstein does not have a whole lot of sway, and it’s a decision-making process that is much more winnable for us.”

Neither Sen. Feinstein's office nor officials at Yosemite National Park responded to requests for comment on the possibility of draining Hetch Hetchy.

Draining the reservoir -- whether to remove the dam itself is something Restore Hetch Hetchy officials haven't taking a firm stand on -- would not adversely affect San Francisco's thirst, says Mr. Marshall.

"San Francisco’s water rights, and its source of water, is the Tuolumne River. Their water rights are tied to the Tuolumne River, which flows through the Hetch Hetchy Valley, and then on down into the San Joaquin River and then into the bay delta and the San Francisco Bay," he points out. "That’s not going to change, nobody’s arguing San Francisco’s water rights. What’s going to change is where we store the water. And the confusion derives from the fact that even though San Francisco has nine reservoirs where it stores its water, one of them, its largest reservoir, is the Hetchy Hetchy Reservoir, and we have always called the system the 'Hetch Hetchy system.'

"So, Sen. Feinstein and many San Franciscans mistakenly believe that Hetch Hetchy is the source of San Francisco’s water, when in fact the Tuolumne River is the source. And we’re not talking about taking a drop of water away from the city, we’re simply saying store it outside of the national park."

To, in effect, go around Sen. Feinstein, the Restore Hetch Hetchy campaign intends to take the matter directly to the voters, in November 2012.

"Our strategy is, as long as Sen. Feinstein continues to remain uninformed about the system, we need to focus on the electorate of San Francisco, and that’s what we’re doing," says Mr. Marshall, who talks as if it's a done deal, that the vote is merely pro forma. "We don’t need congressional action. San Francisco can decide on its own to drain the reservoir and restore the valley."

And along the way, he adds, the city needs to take a new approach to water use and conservation. "San Francisco is a terrible manager of the water it has. A terrible manager," the executive director says.

"We’re green in many ways, but when it comes to water, we’re stuck in the 19th century because we’ve had access to Tuolumne River water for so long. We don’t recycle any water, we’ve abandoned all groundwater use, and so whatever solution San Francisco ultimately decides on to allow Hetch Hetchy to be restored has to include reforming San Francisco’s management and use of water.”

To move the issue to the November 2012 ballot, Restore Hetch Hetchy needs to collect 47,000 signatures from registered San Francisco voters by next June. To drive that petition campaign, which will start shortly after the new year, a nonprofit political organization, Yosemite Restoration Campaign, has been created.

"Next month we are going to be doing some public opinion research, namely through a poll of San Francisco voters. We’ll take the information that we glean from that, structure the ballot initiative, submit it to the city attorney, and get it approved for signature gathering," explains Mr. Marshall. "I think that has to be done all by the end of this year, and then we can begin collecting signatures from January 1, approximately, to June, so we’ll have 180 days in which to gather those signatures."

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Yosemite National Park
The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir today, photo via State of California.

Putting aside the political and financial machinations for a moment, what might it take to drain the valley, remove the accumulated mud and silt, and, restore it as, in John Muir's words, "one of nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples"?

"Well, technically you don’t have to dismantle the dam," says Mr. Marshall. "You simply just blow a hole in the bottom of it, and there are those who argue that let’s not incur the cost of dam removal. Ultimately the Park Service will decide that question. I hope they decide to take the dam down, but it will be their decision to do so.

"Once San Francisco votes to do this, we will have to start doing a massive amount of private fund-raising as well as work to get some congressional resources allocated to make it happen," he continues. "And then the re-plumbing has to occur of the system, which would probably take five to six years. The restoration itself, once it begins, once the reservoir starts to be drained, we’ll probably drain it over an extended period of time. I would say five to seven years, so that the restorationists that are managing the process for the Park Service can sort of control the invasion of non-native plant species and do a good job of planting native plant species in there and really control that.

"Once you get down to the valley floor and drain it, the river will reclaim itself almost immediately, and within two to three years, in the springtime you’ll start to see meadows coming up. Within 10 to 12 year there will be saplings, and within 25 years young forests."

The vision, believes Mr. Hanna, is too great not to act upon. "It’s a tremendous opportunity and I, our actions now are speaking to the future," he says. "And I think we owe it to them to do this."

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Is there a possibility that their could be damaging to any of the ecosystems that have been there for almost a century? I would love to see the beauty Hetch Hetchy has to offer and have also having a chance to visit. Could the damn also be considered a historical site? I'm just curious.

Has anything of this scale been done before?  We've seen the catastrophic results of dambreaks.  But what about a controlled drain - forever?  What have the forces of time and water done to Hetch-Hetchy below?  Will it resurrect looking as it did long ago?  Or will it take time to recover?  Certainly plant succession will take its course and over time nature will do her thing.  But her face will be very different than from what John Muir knew.

Nevertheless, there could be no better champion for the cause than Muir, his legacy, and his family, to take up the cause and win the battle.  Should we do it?  Yes.  Why?  Because we can.  Because it has not been done before.  Because it is the unknown.  Because it will be a new world to explore all over again.  Because it will satisfy man's deepest longing to know.

The "restore" side needs to think carefully about what happens if they get what they want: right now with the reservoir it's still an objectively scenic place except for the low band of water stains near the lake level. Blowing a hole in the dam will no doubt restore the valley, but it will expose garish water-stained cliff walls - and an unused concrete wall of the dam -- which almost certainly will be far more unsightly than what we have now.

If I remember correctly, Hetch-Hetchy has never been open to boating and other water recreation.  If it were, there'd certainly be push-back to keep it.

If the valley is drained, perhaps it could become an excellent laboratory for studying what happens naturally.  Nature does have a way of restoring human damage -- although it may take awhile.  There have been a number of dams removed on some eastern rivers recently.  What is happening to those places?

As for the dam -- why not leave it as a monument?  A monument to an error.

Why not do an experiment.  When the flows into Hetch Hetchy fall after spring (now summer) runoff, cut the water off to San Francisco and actually see what the actual repercussions would be and whether those effected would be supportive.  I know the concept is novel but it would provide real consequences for all to view.  I'm sure the models are out there.  I also like the idea of re-introducing Grizzly Bears to those population centers of California that need population reductions to put things in balance:).

The issue is not just about the Hetch Hetchy valley; it's about the entire watershed. Dams have huge impacts far downstream, and removing the dam may have huge beneficial impacts far outside the park.

The storage behind the O'Shaughnessy Dam is minor compared to other storage on the Tuolumne River. During dry times, SF could divert from Cherry Lake or (after negotiation with Turlock and Modesto) its water bank in Don Pedro Reservoir (6 times the size of Hetchy). Very little water replacement is needed.

Restore Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National park - a bold idea whose time has come.

Curious...I keep hearing them say that it could be drained without depriving San Francisco of any water. I have yet to hear HOW San Francisco would not be shorted any water. Many of these environmental goals are beautiful and wonderful, but fueled infinitely more by emotion and emotional assertions of fact without much logical basis in fact.

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