Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

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Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, located on the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park , was built to provide water and hydroelectric power to San Francisco. Its creation in the early 1900s led to one of the first conflicts between preservationists and those favoring utilitarian use of natural resources . The controversy spanned the presidencies of Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson.

A prolonged conflict between San Francisco and its only water utility, Spring Valley Water Company, drove the city to search for an independent water supply. After surveying several possibilities, the city decided to build a dam and reservoir in the Hetch Hetchy Valley because the river there could supply the most abundant and purest water. This option was also the least expensive, since the city planned to use the dam to generate hydroelectric power. It would also provide an abundant supply of irrigation water for area farmers and the recreation potential of a new lake.

The city applied to the U. S. Department of the Interior in 1901 for permission to construct the dam, but the request was not approved until 1908. The department then turned the issue over to Congress to work out an exchange of land between the federal government and the city. Congressional debate spanned several years and produced a number of bills. Part of the controversy involved the Right of Way Act of 1901, which gave Congress power to grant rights of way through government lands; some claimed this was designed specifically for the Hetch Hetchy project.

Opponents of the project likened the valley to Yosemite on a smaller scale. They wanted to preserve its high cliff walls, waterfalls, and diverse plant species . One of the most well-known opponents, John Muir , described the Hetch Hetchy Valley as "a grand landscape garden, one of Nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples." Campers and mountain climbers fought to save the campgrounds and trails that would be flooded.

As the argument ensued, often played out in newspapers and other public forums, overwhelming national opinion appeared to favor the preservation of the valley. Despite this public support, a close vote in Congress led to the passage of the Raker Act, allowing the O'Shaughnessy Dam and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir to be constructed. President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill into law on December 19, 1913.

The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir was completed in 1923 and still supplies water and electric power to San Francisco. In 1987, Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel created a brief controversy when he suggested tearing down O'Shaughnessy Dam.

See also Economic growth and the environment; Environmental law; Environmental policy

[Teresa C. Donkin ]



Jones, Holway R. John Muir and the Sierra Club: The Battle for Yosemite. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1965.

Nash, Roderick. "Conservation as Anxiety." In The American Environment: Readings in the History of Conservation. 2nd ed. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1976.