The Science of Sustainability

Century-Old Battle Over Yosemite's 'Second Valley' Heats Up

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When San Francisco voters head to the polls in a few weeks, they’ll be weighing in on one of California’s oldest environmental battles. A large part of San Francisco’s water supply is stored inside a national park – in a reservoir built in Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Environmentalists all the way back to John Muir have called on the city to store its water elsewhere so the valley can be restored. A November ballot measure would require the city to develop a plan to do that. But the battle over Hetch Hetchy is just as fierce today as it was a century ago.

It’s evident when you drive up to the entrance booth in Yosemite National Park on your way to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. The ranger hands you a brochure from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission that reads: “20th century engineering marvel. Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is the keystone of this clean, efficient water and power delivery system.”

Why would a city agency pass out promotional pamphlets about a reservoir? Probably to respond to people like Mike Marshall.

“This belongs to the American people. And what we can do – what San Francisco can be leaders in is draining this and bringing this incredible place back to life,” says Marshall, director of Restore Hetch Hetchy.

His group has a singular goal: drain the reservoir and make the valley a second Yosemite Valley. And for the first time in decades, that goal is in reach. Measure F on the San Francisco ballot would require the public utilities commission to draw up a plan, at the cost of $8 million, for draining the reservoir and finding new water storage. In 2016, that plan would go before San Francisco voters.

Hetch Hetchy Valley in 1906. Photo: USGS.

“We thought ‘what a great debate to have.’ Now that we know what we know, should we revisit a decision 100 years ago that had huge environmental consequences?” Marshall says.

History of a Valley Turned Reservoir

Yosemite was already a national park when San Francisco went looking for a reliable water supply a century ago. The idea for a new reservoir didn’t get much traction until the 1906 earthquake, when much of the city burned to the ground. “They used that as a rallying cry and it was a huge battle in Congress,” Marshall says.

Naturalist John Muir led the fight against it. He wrote about the valley’s sheer granite cliffs and scenic waterfalls, calling it a twin to Yosemite Valley.

Eventually, he lost, and San Francisco began building the O’Shaughnessy dam in 1914 to collect water from the Tuolumne River. “Although they lost the battle, they launched a national environmental movement.”

Today the valley is under 300 feet of water, which supplies two and a half million people in San Francisco and cities around Silicon Valley. But the battle over Hetch Hetchy never really went away. In 1955, Sierra Club director David Brower made a film called “Two Yosemites.”

In 1988, the National Park Service released a study about what would happen to the landscape if the reservoir was drained.

“Within a year of the river reclaiming itself, you’ll start to see green meadows along the banks. And within a few years you’ll start to see saplings and trees come up,” Marshall says. Within 50 years, the report says, oak woodlands would return and pine trees would be 50 feet tall.

Of course, there’s the question of what happens to the water supply. Marshall says it can be stored elsewhere. “People mistakenly believe Hetch Hetchy is our only reservoir. It’s one of nine reservoirs. So what our initiative does is ask San Francisco to plan to consolidate from nine to eight reservoirs.”

Marshall says by expanding other reservoirs, using underground storage and recycling more water, San Francisco could make up for Hetch Hetchy’s storage. “We don’t recycle any water. We’ve stopped, for all intents and purposes, using groundwater, except for a little bit. Those are things we’re going to have to do anyway."

'Things Were Different Then'

“We are looking at recycled water. We are building recycled water plants. We are building groundwater pumping wells,” says Michael Carlin, deputy general manager of the San Francisco PUC.

The Tuolumne River emerges below the O’Shaughnessy dam.

“We’re looking at all those things. And to say, gee whiz, you also should just plan that your system is gone… doesn’t make any sense.” As a public employee, Carlin says he can’t take a position on the issue, but he has concerns.

The Hetch Hetchy system is reliable, he says. The water is so clean, it doesn’t require filtration. And the PUC doesn’t own all the reservoirs in the system, so Carlin says they’d have to rely on other water districts if the reservoir was drained.

“Asking them if they’re willing to store San Francisco’s water there, the answer that we’ve gotten from them at least is no,” says Carlin.

Then there’s the cost. Studies throughout the years have put it between one and 10 billion dollars.

The SFPUC has never studied it, but Carlin doubts that would help. “There have been extensive studies in the past. They have come to the same conclusion which is just a set of questions. And the issue is whether any additional study will just lead you to the same set of questions.”

The ballot measure has a number of opponents: San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, Senator Dianne Feinstein and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, who say it’s a huge risk, because businesses depend on reliable water.

“If we were to propose building this reservoir today in a national park, chances are it wouldn’t happen. But it happened in 1913. Things were different then,” Carlin says.

On November 6th, San Francisco voters will decide if they want to take a step toward rewriting that history.

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Category: Engineering, Environment, News, Radio, Water

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About the Author ()

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.
  • James Waian

    We can do this! Come on San Francisco, let's vote YES on Prop. F to get the ball rolling.

  • Charlotte Allen

    Getting rid of Hetch Hetchy would result in a huge transfer of money and water from the Bay Area to the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts because the water released from Hetch Hetchy wouldn't flow to the sea, it would go a short ways down the Tuolumne and end up in the Don Pedro reservoir owned by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts. These districts have already said that they aren't going to allow San Francisco to pump water out of the Don Pedro reservoir. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has spent years studying this issue and is already considering water purchases from the Modesto Irrigation District and building large desalination plants as ways to provide water in drought years. There would be no avoiding these undesirable alternatives if San Francisco lost the water stored in Hetch Hetchy.

    • Mark Cederborg

      Actually, the SF Public Utilities Commission has not studied the issue, and has not considered what would happen without the HH Reservoir- including looking at a diversion before Don Pedro. Nor have they looked at using Cherry Lake and Lake Eleanor as water storage replacement options (these currently are only used to generate power). There are so many options, and the potential return is so massive that it seems 'insane' not to look at them. All prop F does is ask the SFPUC to evaluate the many options. A simple request, and in return it would show the country that SF respects the National Park System and the Tuolumne River watershed…

      • Charlotte Allen

        SFPUC has studied the issue and knows more about water rights than you do. San Francisco's water rights to the Tuolumne are tied to the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. San Francisco has no right to construct a water storage facility at any other location on the Tuolumne. Both the Cherry and Eleanor reservoirs are currently used to fulfill the flow requirements on the Tuolumne. In fact there are very limited options for the Bay Area's water supply, and the two suggested by the studies cited by Restore Hetch Hetchy are the purchase of water from Modesto Irrigation District and building desalination plants.

        • David

          nice ad hominem! "SFPUC has studied the issue and knows more about water rights than you do."

    • Spreck Rosekrans

      Two replies Charlotte. First – take a look at the Cherry Intertie document which explains how Tuolumne supplies could be made available to San Francisco without O'Shaughnessy Dam AND without involving Turlock and Modesto. Second, they fear San Francisco more than they other way around.

      And Mark C is right that the SFPUC has not engaged in this discussion. That is the point of the ballot measure. Oh, and the water rights existed prior to the construction of the reservoir and are independent of it. That fact is widely understood by water attorneys.

      • Charlotte Allen

        I'm quoting from the Cherry Intertie document: "With a Cherry Intertie…In critically dry years, an additional 22% of annual supply would be needed to make up for the loss of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir."

      • Charlotte Allen

        Here's what the 2006 Hetch Hetchy Restoration Study conducted by the State of California said about San Francisco's Raker Act water rights to the Tuolumne and subsequent agreements entered into with Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts concerning water rights: "The rights and duties under these agreements would have to be resolved by the parties in the event that Hetch Hetchy Reservoir no longer exists."

    • thinkingaboutthefuture

      the sale of water from modesto to SF didn't pass. SF didn't spend years studying anything about it, how would i know? I'm currently a Modesto resident and farmer and I'm happy this didn't pass. If SF is supposedly a great place for using resources so well, they would realize that the growing population needs to control their water use, allow it to be used for farming (to feed the nation), and realize that draining HH would cost so much to the state that is already in debt (but somehow a speed-rail passes) and reduce water supply.

  • Zach

    Can't a reasonable argument be made against this measure using Yosemite as an example of how our national parks, while a treasure, have been sold out to corporate interests (Deleware North Co.) Eco-tourism and all all of the human waste associated with it, air pollution, etc. With all that in mind, is returning Hetch Hetchy to its "natural state" really the more environmentally conscious option?

    • Kathy Schrenk

      A totally reasonable argument — the areas around HH are pristine and amazing examples of backcountry Yosemite. But on the other hand, this is a second chance to do the *right* thing for another Yosemite Valley: develop it in a sustainable way that allows the public to experience it without overwhelming it.


    The idea of tearing down Hetch Hetchy really isn't practical. It would require using New Don Pedro reservoir which is owned by 2 irrigation districts that have said they won't let SF use their reservoir. Alternatively new storage could be built at the Clavey River, but that's designated wild and scenic, which prohibits devlopment. There's been suhggestion of increasing the size of Calaveras Reservoir, but it has just been rebuilt to its oreiginal size at the request of local environmentalists who were concerned about local impacts on Alameda Creek. going through the Sate Water Project is out because it's fully booked at times that SF would need it.Furthermore, according to the old Army Coprs of Engineers' report on the use of HH, it says the valley is swamp-like with hordes of mosquitos. Not a pleasant environment for hiking, etc.

  • planetdrum

    Do you truly understand Proposition F and its
    affects on the Hetch Hetchy Resevoir? You
    will now. Be in the know & take this
    opportunity to ask some questions and learn about San Francisco’s controversial proposition!
    Please join Planet Drum Foundation at the Main Library and discuss the future of water in San Francisco.

    Where: Koret Auditorium, San Francisco Main
    Library, 100 Larkin Street, San Francisco 94102

    When: Wednesday, October 10, 2012; 6:30 PM-9:30 PM

    Mike Marshall- Restore Hetch Hetchy (For the Proposition), Adrian
    Covert- Save Hetch Hetchy (Against the Proposition), Jason Mark-
    Earth Island Institute (Moderator)

    • Camp Mather Matters

      Mike Marshall is talking thru his hat – see the next comment. Not only should SF lose its pristine drinking water and clean hydropower, but the taxpayers should also pay for the provilege? And to get what? A second Sierra valley choked with automobiles and tourists? High priced filtered water (who would be selling it?) and nuclear power? It would be great to see that kind of money poured into our schools, healthcare – anything but a rush to the past. Should we also "restore" our cities? Tear down the Marina neighborhood of San Francisco because it didn't exist in 1913? 1849? Who's picking these dates? The Hetch Hetchy Valley was a lake before it was dry – so hasn't it already been restored??

      • seapop

        Spending money to second guess what was built 100 years ago is dumb.

  • MR. Blue

    San Francisco could be bringing water from canals that criss cross the central valley. The only thing that is stopping this is the way that the government uses the water. Farmers are growing rice in the desert while farmers that live and work near potential natural rice paddies are being payed not to grow rice because there is a surplus. How twisted is that? Also, farmers can have their water rights revoked if they don't draw a certain amount of water from the canals. They don't need to draw that water, but they have too. What do you think could happen to california's water recourses if the government and the different Public utilities could get their act together.

  • Richard

    >> "The idea for a new reservoir didn’t get much traction until the 1906 earthquake, when much of the city burned to the ground."

    This statement is a bit misleading. Wasn't the immediate shortage following the quake due to broken pipes, not lack of water nearby?

  • Scott Kruse

    Removing O'Shauhnessy Dam on the Tuolumne River and restoring Hetch Hetchy valley will result in a zero loss of water to San Francisco. The water still runs downhill, the hydroelectric facilities remain in place.

  • Chuck Bruffey

    If voters don't remove Hetch Hetchy, God will. A one hundred year old dam is well beyond its used by date and could crumble in a good earthquake or we should hope be damaged enough so that it has to come down. Removing dams is not without precedence and Washington State is seeing an amazingly rapid comeback on the Elwha and White Salmon Rivers. The Hetch Hetchy valley belongs to the world, not a bunch of latte sipping liberal fake environmentalists in San Francisco.