Yosemite National Park draws up to 4 million visitors each year. They come to admire the stunning granite of Yosemite Valley, hike in the Sierra Nevada and enjoy the unspoiled wilderness. Yet Yosemite also is the source of 85 percent of San Francisco’s drinking water. And that has made it the setting of one of the country’s longest-running environmental debates.
Although The City eventually overcame the protests and won permission to create the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, its critics never went away. Instead, they kept calling on San Francisco to remove the O’Shaughnessy Dam and restore the valley behind it.
This year, voters may have their say as a ballot initiative called the Water Sustainability and Environmental Restoration Planning Act of 2012 would ask San Franciscans to consider what restoring Hetch Hetchy might take, and whether the sacrifice would be worth the cost.
When Dave Mihalic was superintendent of Yosemite National Park, from 1999 to 2003, he was entrusted with protecting the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. That part of the job never thrilled him.
“It seems ironic to me that San Francisco could lead the charge in so many ways — whether it’s ecological and sustainable food in their daily lives — but every time they flush their toilets, they’re despoiling a national park,” said Mihalic, who has since retired from the National Park Service.
While San Francisco boasts green credentials to top most other U.S. cities, many see the reservoir as The City’s original sin. But dam-removal critics say San Francisco might not have grown into a thriving metropolis without the reservoir’s reliable water supply.
“Take that away and there’s a real chance we wouldn’t have accomplished what we have,” said Jim Wunderman, president of the Bay Area Council, a local business coalition. “Without this water system, San Francisco and the Bay Area wouldn’t be what they are today.”
Today, no American city could build a major dam in a national park. It seemed unlikely even more than a century ago, when San Francisco gained the right to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley.
In the late 1800s, as The City’s population exploded, city leaders realized there would never be enough local water to quench the thirst of a growing metropolis.
“San Francisco started looking all over the state for a supply that could be fed by gravity — and that’s very rare,” said Paul Mazza, manager of program development coordination at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and an amateur historian of local water issues.
In the early 1900s, The City petitioned the federal government for permission to dam the Tuolumne River in the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Permission was repeatedly denied, and the effort provoked an outcry from environmentalists and newspaper editorial boards around the country. Dam opponent John Muir, the father of the conservation movement, called San Francisco’s leaders “temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism.”
Then the 1906 earthquake changed everything. City leaders blamed an inadequate water supply for the fires that destroyed San Francisco after the quake. And with the 1913 Raker Act, Congress gave The City what it sought.
It took 10 years to complete the O’Shaughnessy Dam, which now stands at 312 feet. But as of today, 2.5 million people in San Francisco and the East and South bays draw 85 percent of their water from the Tuolumne River. The rest comes from smaller watersheds in the East Bay and on the Peninsula.
Ed Harrington, general manager of the SFPUC, said San Francisco is working to develop more local sources of water, including groundwater and recycled water.
But he said draining the reservoir would be a mistake.
“If Hetchy never happened,” he said, “you wouldn’t have the Bay Area as you know it. … If Hetchy is drained, we would have to build someplace else to store the water, and I don’t know where that would be.”
Mihalic insists that The City could adapt.
“As I understand it, time and technology have moved on,” he said. “If we made a political decision 100 years ago, it just seems to me that 100 years later, why couldn’t we ask, ‘Have things changed?’”
Gold Rush brought rush on resources
San Francisco now draws most of its water from the Hetch Hetchy system, but The City once relied only on local sources.
Before the Gold Rush, the town of less than 1,000 depended on small local creeks originating in the hills, along with water barged across the Bay for as much as a dollar a barrel. When The City began to boom, local entrepreneurs realized that money could be made by exploiting the increasingly desperate need for water.
“San Francisco was probably the most remote place on the planet, and in one year, it became one of the most desirable places on the planet,” said Paul Mazza, manager of program development coordination at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
The private Spring Valley Water Co. built dams south of The City to collect runoff from the Peninsula hills, but when that wasn’t enough, the company looked to the East Bay, where it built more small reservoirs, which still exist. San Francisco leaders, however, were wary of continuing to rely on a corporation that had grown into a corrupt monopoly.
In the late 19th century, The City began trying to buy the company — a purchase accomplished in 1930. By then, however, the O’Shaughnessy Dam had been built across the Hetch Hetchy Valley, and soon San Francisco would be drawing most of its water from Sierra Nevada snowmelt.
Going easy on the H2O
Despite criticism from environmentalists over the source of our water, San Francisco uses less water than other places in California.
80 gallons a day per capita in San Francisco
154 gallons a day across Bay Area
176 gallons a day in Los Angeles and San Diego region
280 gallons a day in Sacramento area
Sources: SFPUC, Public Policy Institute of California