But in 1913, the U.S. Congress authorized the city of San Francisco to construct a dam and reservoir on the Tuolumne River in Hetch Hetchy to ensure that San Francisco would have a dependable water supply. It is said that the act broke John Muir’s heart, and some have even suggested that this great sadness hastened his death in 1914. By 1923, the dam was completed and the valley was flooded under several hundred feet of water.
Today, the Hetch Hetchy Valley, like many of America’s natural landscapes, is at the center of a restoration debate. But is trying to turn back the clock on natural areas we altered long ago the best way to spend environmental funds, especially in these cash-strapped times? Or would working to protect those wild places we still have in their original state be a better use of scant resources?
From valley to reservoir — and back again
After a major earthquake in 1906, the city of San Francisco applied to the United States Department of the Interior to obtain water rights to Hetch Hetchy. A seven-year struggle ensued, with environmental groups such as the Sierra Club loudly opposing the proposal. John Muir, then president of the club, observed, “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”
Despite the protests, however, the O’Shaughnessy Dam was constructed and the valley became a reservoir. Today, the dam provides water and electricity to 2.4 million people in the city of San Francisco, in San Mateo and Alameda Counties, and in the San Joaquin Valley.
While the Sierra Club still advocates removing the dam, the city of San Francisco resists, not only because of the millions of people the reservoir serves, but because, according to a study ordered by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, deconstructing the dam would cost from $3 to $9.8 billion.
Restore Hetch Hetchy, a group dedicated to winning approval for restoration of the valley from San Francisco by the end of 2012 and securing state and federal funding for it by 2014, claims that by California standards, Hetch Hetchy is not a large reservoir. The storage capacity that would be lost by removing it — 360,000 acre-feet — is less than 1 percent of the capacity of the reservoirs in California. And, times have changed: Hetch Hetchy now accounts for just a fraction of the six million acre-feet of storage built in California during the last 20 years. Don Pedro Reservoir, downstream on the Tuolumne River, already stores more than two million acre-feet of water for San Francisco and other water consumers. And the annual water supply replacement needed when Hetch Hetchy is restored will be less than what was required for other great restoration efforts in California at Mono Lake, the Trinity River, and the Bay-Delta.
Per Restore Hetch Hetchy’s website, in the words of three former superintendents of Yosemite, “By investing in state-of-the-art recycling, conservation and groundwater systems, San Francisco can eliminate the use of Yosemite National Park as a water storage facility.”
Grasslands and wetlands: bring them back, too?
Hetch Hetchy, of course, is a high-profile restoration cause, but other types of natural areas have their proponents, too. Today, more than half of the 220 million acres of wetlands thought to have existed in the lower 48 states in the 1600s have been drained and converted to other uses, mostly agriculture. And today, environmental enthusiasts are being asked to support wetland restoration projects, from the East Coast to the West.
And though America’s grasslands lack the powerful, cascading waterfalls, deep gorges and canoe-friendly waters that mountain valleys or wetlands may possess, they, too, have their champions. Hidden among the blades of their understated beauty, they provide a crucial habitat for dozens of species of ground-nesting birds and other wildlife. We’ve lost 97 percent of our native grasslands, a statistic that many environmental groups are working to change.
But alongside all of these restoration endeavors, we are told that there are still pristine, critical areas to save. Polar bear, panda, and tiger habitats are disappearing at an alarming rate; and without our help, we may not only lose them, but the megafauna that live in them as well. In fact, habitat loss could push these species to the point of extinction.
With scant funds earmarked for environmental causes, do you think restoration should be a top priority, or should we concentrate our resources on saving the wild areas that we still have?
Feature photo: The Hetch Hetchy Valley is now a reservoir. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews