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From Satan to Senators: Hetch Hetchy is an All-American Mistake

From Satan to Senators: Hetch Hetchy is an All-American Mistake

All Photography by Ron Good

     Hetch Hetchy, which means "grassy valley," was once a breathing, untouched valley of granite peaks. This valley passed as Yosemite’s identical twin on a smaller scale. Lined with stands of alder, willow, poplar, and dogwood, the Tuolumne flowed much like the Merced River through the canyon. Just as magnificent, this paradise lost once invited bears to rise early and ramble across its steep granite precipices. 

Hetch Hetchy from Surprise Point before the hideous dam was built

Hetch Hetchy from Surprise Point before the hideous dam was built

     Now, the bears are no more. The royal assembly of trees gone. In 1913, the San Francisco government made a decision to build the O’Shaughnessy Dam. Hetch Hetchy’s walls were a perfect place to build a bath tub of drinking water due to its V-shape. The granite walls were boarded up, sentenced to a lifetime of incarceration by concrete and metal. The whole valley, became inundated with water - flooded, stifled, and choked.

     Yosemite was sandbagged by Congress when the Hetch Hetchy bill was passed. On December 8th, 1913, the Senate passed this bill, which permitted the building of the dam in the national park. The day after, The Times wrote, “Ever since the business of nation-making began, it has been the unwritten law of conquest that people who are too lazy, too indolent, or too parsimonious to defend their heritages will lose them to the hosts that know how to fight and to finance campaigns.” All efforts made in the fights for conservation and preservation have been fought by conservationists and nature-lovers who refuse to stay seated while an ecosystem’s integrity is threatened. However, all too often those who stand in defense of natural places such as Hetch Hetchy, tend to have less money and therefore less power. 

    Those who knew "how to fight and to finance campaigns” were those who made up San Francisco's government: Mayor James Phelan and James Garfield. But John Muir and his protege William Colby, wouldn't let Hetch Hetchy go down without a fight. The battle to keep Hetch Hetchy pure took place over a century ago between 1901 and 1913. This twelve year face-off between John Muir and the crooked men who worked for San Francisco, was a political war fought by stealth legislation. 

    In the battle for Hetch Hetchy, conservationists were not wealthy enough to fight on their own, and the American people failed to answer the call. Within the borders of Yosemite National Park, Hetch Hetchy was invaded by loggers and thousands of workers all sent for the purpose of turning the canyon of the Tuolumne into a hideous concrete, water tank. Lake Eleanor was assaulted by a twelve hundred foot long and seventy foot tall dam.

Wow. Breath-taking.

Wow. Breath-taking.

     Put iron gripped, short-sighted politicians in power, and they will single-handedly extinct our human species one natural wonder at a time. From the dawn of this free-wheelin’ and dealin’ country, starting with our sick obsession with gold, we have been taught that conquest (of non-white people and nature), is a virtue. In 1913 when congress approved plans to build the dam they set a deplorable example: that commercial value is priority, and the original state of nature, in this case, our iconic Yosemite National Park, is not. 

Oh, it's in the national park, ya don't say?

Oh, it's in the national park, ya don't say?

     Political discourse is ugly today, and it was no different in the early twentieth century. The fight for Hetch Hetchy created a deep rift, leaving people to choose to support either John Muir or the San Francisco government. The San Francisco Call, made John Muir sound like an enemy of the city - an impractical man who found human life to be cheap compared to that of, “the works of God.” Mayor Phelan openly criticized Muir by claiming that Muir “would sacrifice his own family for the preservation of beauty.” Though John Muir recognized that Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Sequoia National Parks were preservation triumphs, he also stated that, "Nevertheless, like anything else worthwhile, from the very beginning, however well guarded, they have always been subject to attack by despoiling gainseekers and mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to Senators.” And to this day, however well-guarded, places we want to keep wild could be compromised just as Hetch Hetchy was, if we do not act quickly enough. 

     Why all the fuss over the giant man-made lake? The destruction of Hetch Hetchy’s forest vastly decreased carbon uptake in the valley. Increase in carbon in the atmosphere leads to global warming. Rash decisions are prevalent in our history and they have lead, and are leading to, massive environmental destruction. At the end of the twentieth century, which was dubbed the Age of the Dams, 68,000 large dams and 75,000 small ones were built, and, “only two rivers more than 120 miles long, the Yellowstone and the Salmon, flowed freely for their entire length.” 

      The five biggest atrocities in the history of mankind, Hoover, Grand Coulee, Bonneville, Shasta, and Fort Peck Dam, were born out of the depths of the Depression. As the United States government constructed these river tombstones at maniacal rates, not much thought was put towards the environmental consequences. Although dams are intended to collect water, since the reservoir’s surface area is greater than that of a flowing river’s, they actually increase evaporation. Big bowls of glistening water are perfect targets for the sun. The sun sits heavy and high for long afternoons in the west, our nation’s driest region, where many of our dams are located.

    Flowing rivers carry sediment that is deposited along the river banks and carried down to the ocean. Ocean beaches are composed of this sediment, which also plays a role in the biological productivity of coastal regions. When rivers are released in a staccato-like fashion instead of a continuous rhythm, this disrupts everything. Locally, in the areas that are more immediately affected by the death of a river, native species of flora and fauna may not survive. These areas tend to become invaded by non-native species. 

    Salmon are a prime example of an environment gone wrong. We have tried fish ladders and even barges, which are basically fish taxis, to transport the salmon around obstacles. We have become clowns of our own demise. How comedic, in the most tragic sense of the word, is it that we are spending energy, time, and money transporting fish? How controlling are we that we think it is permissible to be assisting a species to do what it should be doing naturally? It is by our doing, the creation of dams, that natural processes are interrupted or at times, destroyed.

    The day after he decided to go forward with approving the plans for flooding Hetch Hetchy, James Garfield said to William Colby in defense of the city, “It must be remembered...that the duty imposed upon the Secretary of the Interior in acting on grants of this kind prevents him from considering merely the preservation of the park in its natural state, but he must, as well, consider what use will give the greatest benefit to the greatest number.” If we look at climate change we will see that this ethos of “the greatest benefit for the greatest good” is a selfish, consumptive ethos that has put us in a blind-sighted dead-end position. A position in which we will find ourselves stuck if we do not do something about it now through our own small-scale efforts. Even small-scale efforts can have big impacts.

     Although Muir’s passionate stance on nature was often criticized as being flowery and naive, Hetch Hetchy stands as a lesson: hindsight is always 20/20. “There were better, smarter, simpler, lower places for San Francisco to have stored its Sierra Nevada water. Ingenuity is often like this; in rising to an engineering challenge, it sometimes transcends common sense,” concludes Brower in his reflections on the situation. Hetch Hetchy symbolizes a monumental mistake that has long been a concrete burden on the shoulders of the environmental movement.

Roosevelt and Muir with Hetch Hetchy in the background

Roosevelt and Muir with Hetch Hetchy in the background

     John Muir died broken-hearted. He knew that although the dam had been built and the valley drowned, the fight wasn’t over. One hundred years later, after the bulldozers destroyed the meadows and the concrete was poured over the moist soil, the gainseekers and mischief-makers are still winning. Hetch Hetchy remains a bathtub of drinking water for the San Francisco Bay Area. The Hetch Hetchy controversy reminds us of the terrifying reality that if we don’t support the John Muirs of our generation, our natural world will continue to face unnecessary destruction. Politicians with sleazy agendas remain behind the scenes. Now more than ever, our country needs soldiers on the environmental frontlines. The ‘greatest benefit for the greatest number’ turned out to be a toxic lie. Today in 2016 there has been a renewed call to action to remove the O’Shaughnessy Dam. Restore Hetch Hetchy is an organization that seeks to mollify the mistakes of the past. 

     We cannot continue as we have, blind and complacent. We live in such comfort and convenience that any thoughts of questioning our habits make life hard, make life difficult. But we must look at ourselves, we must look at our habits, and start asking hard questions. We must begin to look at our structures and systems critically. Everything from our morning routine, to how we dispose of our food, to how we travel, and what we communicate when we hold casual conversations. Everything must be looked at critically. We are in dire need of change.

     As a species with the capability to know so much, we must educate ourselves as to how our choices from what kind of yogurt to buy, to who we vote for in the election, to what we spend our time reading, deeply affects us. Change does not have to be big. It could be as simple as spending less time on Facebook and more time researching an issue you know nothing about. We have the power to be aware, to be educated, and do something about the state of our world. But we can’t start tomorrow, we must start our small, inner revolutions today. We need to be the allies, the campaigners, the protestors against those in power who are slowly degrading our resources.

     Hetch Hetchy was a hidden valley that that shared an uncanny resemblance with Yosemite. The way in which nature repeated herself was a magnificent scene to be certain. The Ahwahneechee people, now referred to as Miwok and Paiute, were the first people to call the deep grassy valley “home.” We came in with our colonial independence and pig-headed ideas of civilization, and started tweaking things. We have tweaked things so much that now everything is out of balance. Our country was founded on a cultural consciousness that believes nature bows down to man. We are the only species that does not adapt to nature. 

    It seems more often than not the American ethos of progress, production, and power champions our compassion and intuition. We cannot be swayed under the guise of the ‘greatest benefit for the greatest number’ any longer. It is time for us to fight for our wilderness, or we will lose it. We need to stop the systemic sandbagging of nature.    

    When John Muir descended Hetch Hetchy’s steep granite precipices for the first time he couldn’t have known the tumult and anguish that lied ahead of him in his fight to keep the pristine land free from capitalist hyenas. Muir spent his life fervently defending the canyon of groves and meadows that teemed with black oaks, Douglas fir, sugar pines, thickets of azaleas, and bracken fern eight feet tall. Where are the Rachel Carsons and John Muirs of our day and age? Has everyone turned into pseudo-activists who slap a hashtag and a trending filter on their Facebook picture and call it protest, call it awareness? Since when does activism mean interacting with a keyboard and a screen? We might be too busy posting our latest selfie to Instagram to realize our mountains are being drilled, our rivers wrung dry, and our forests chopped.


Brower, Kenneth. Hetch Hetchy: Undoing a Great American Mistake. Berkeley, California: Heyday, 2013.


International Rivers. Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Dams FAQs. Berkeley, California.

Goings, David B. Dam - Impact of Dams.

<a href="">Dams - Impact Of Dams</a>


Photographs from the Sierra Club: Photo Cred: Isaiah West Taber Photo Cred: Herbert W. Gleason Photo Cred: Joseph N. Le Conte Photo Cred: Ron Good : Photo Cred: Ron Good Photo Cred: Ron Good


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