Hetch Hetchy Valley Debate- Molly Bass

The Hetch Hetchy valley is a water system in California that lies northwest of Yosemite National Park. In 1923 in the lower end of the valley, the O’Shaughnessy Dam was constructed. There have been efforts over the past 25 years to tear down the dam and restore the natural beauty of Yosemite National Park. The construction of the dam stemmed from the aftermath of a terrible fire and earthquake in 1906. The dam was intended to bring water to San Francesco, flooding the valley itself in the process. The construction of the dam became a fight between preservation and conservation, and has been a topic of discussion for many years.

Steinberg discusses in chapter 9 the dispute between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot. John Muir, who represented a preservationist’s point of view, opposed the construction of the dam. Muir’s views on the environment stemmed from Henry Thoreau’s idea that nature enhanced the human experience, and could be used as an escape from modern society. In 1892, he founded the Sierra club, whose ultimate focus was on the preservation of the environment. Muir eventually lost the battle to Pinchot, thus the dam, whose construction was led by Michael O’Shaughnessy, was built, which resulted in the valley being completely flooded.

100 years later, there is a debate on whether the O’Shaughnessy dam should be drained in order to restore the natural order of the valley. A California state report in 2006 estimated that the cost of removing the dam would be anywhere between $3 billion to $10 billion dollars. This construction would change the water system from a natural gravity-based system to a system that would replace its lost water storage and hydropower. The bill for the damage results in an increase in local taxes and utility costs, which would drive up the water rates during California’s drought.

Restore Hetch Hetchy, a group devoted to promoting the remodeling of the Hetch Hetchy valley, claim to the voters that the prices are inflated. There is also the argument given by Spreck Rosekrans, the policy director of Restore Hetch Hetchy, that there are numerous reservoirs in the Hetch Hetchy valley complex, so there would be ample room for water space after the destruction of the O’Shaughnessy dam.

Rosekrans also argues that adjusting the lost storage space would result in losing no more than 5% of the water delivery capacity, and only a fifth in dry years. During that time, San Francesco would take advantage of the local groundwater and recycled water.

In an interview given in 2005 by PBS, Spencer Michels investigates by asking people who come in contact with the dam to give their opinions. Susan Leal, the general manager of San Francesco Public Utilities Commission, argues against the destruction of the dam, stating “It’s not like Legos where you can just take out one piece and you can just replace it. You’re removing the gravity part of it, you’re removing the clean hydropower, and as you know, we’ve had energy crisis in this state.”

One frequently mentioned solution after destroying the dam is to take advantage of the surrounding reservoirs. By filling up the reservoirs (including Don Pedro, the closest lake to the Hetch Hetchy reservoir), a $1 billion to $10 billion cost of a new system could be avoided.

What was once a major feat in construction history in the early 20th century has turned into a controversy rooted in the very ideals Muir argued 100 years ago. Whether it is right or wrong for the dam to be destroyed, there will be many environmental consequences that will effect the San Francesco area for years to come.


Steinberg, Theodore. Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.






3 thoughts on “Hetch Hetchy Valley Debate- Molly Bass

  1. zak gentile

    I feel like after 100 years later the damage is done. If its already done and it’s not worth destroying something already build for a good cause. Clearly California needs the water and it doesn’t seem right now at least. Well done Molly, I had no idea this was being discussed.

  2. Hayley Pettinato

    Although I agree with Muir’s views and Thoreau’s idea that nature enhances the human experience, I don’t necessarily support taking down the dam. Since it is already built and has been around for quite some time, it does not make sense to take it down; this would involve a lot of time and money, and potentially affects the water sources for San Francisco.


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