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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

"Dam Hetch Hetchy!"

Updated: May 13, 2022

"Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man."

John Muir, 1909

In late 2016, the Obama administration designated an area in southeastern Utah as Bears Ears National Monument. Hailed by archeologists, conservationists, and Native American tribes, the monument sought to protect sensitive archeological and cultural sites. The move drew the ire of the proponents of energy and mining development. Thus, when the Trump administration came into office, it significantly reduced the monument's size in 2017. This action became embroiled in several court cases that sought to block it. In October of 2021, the Biden administration formally announced the restoration of Bears Ears to its original size. The controversy over Bears Ears National Monument highlights a debate going on since Lewis and Clark explored west of the Mississippi River. Who benefits from public land, and how should public land be utilized? The American West's history is punctuated by a tug-of-war between those who seek economic development and exploitation of the region's natural resources versus those who seek to preserve the unique wilderness and conserve resources for future generations.

The first significant victory of the young American conservation movement occurred in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. The Canadian-born Galen Clark is remembered as the first person of European descent to discover the great groves of sequoia trees. He also spearheaded the efforts to protect the Yosemite valley and the sequoias from potential development. These efforts came to fruition in 1864 when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant. This was the first time that land was set aside by the Federal government for preservation and public use. It would serve as the precedent for the establishment of Yellowstone as the nation's first national park. The grant, though, was turned over to the state of California to administer as a state park. Through the first few decades, the park still suffered from overgrazing of livestock and the continued logging of sequoias. The work and activism of naturalist John Muir would be instrumental in bringing awareness of the need to protect the region. An act of Congress in 1890 expanded the park's boundaries beyond the valley and Galen Clark's groves of sequoias providing for further Federal protection. But to Muir's and others' disappointment, the park's administration remained with the state. A camping trip with Muir in 1903 would convince President Theodore Roosevelt of the need to have Yosemite and the surrounding area entirely under Federal control. This was accomplished in 1906 when Yosemite was officially designated a National Park. Yet already, there was trouble brewing for the park, and it would divide the nascent American conservation movement around two competing philosophies.

Water in the western United States has always been a vital, scarce, and valuable commodity. Rainfall and snowfall totals vary tremendously across the region, and the major river systems, such as the Colorado River, are dependent on snowmelt for their source. Water and growth went hand in hand. Water and political power also went hand in hand. The entire region has a long history of battles over water rights. In California, in particular, San Francisco and Los Angeles would become flashpoints over water rights, and outcomes there would determine winners and losers over the next century.

By the late 19th century, San Francisco had transformed itself from a small Spanish settlement to the West's leading commercial and financial center. The growing urban center teetered on the edge in terms of water supply. Therefore water became a paramount issue as city leaders recognized that future growth was tied to water availability. But also personal fortunes as well. Eyes began turning toward the Sierra Nevada as the solution to the city's water resource vulnerability. During this time, most municipalities relied on privately owned utilities to supply water. The utilities needed government approval to set rates, leaving the system open to abuse. Utilities, usually controlled by wealthy capitalists, ensured favored officials remained in office. Corruption in the form of bribery, land speculation, and inside trading was rampant. At the turn of the 20th century, there appeared a growing progressive reform movement to create public utilities, including those for water. For San Francisco, the water monopoly was the Spring Valley Water Works. In 1896, a Progressive, James D. Phelan, was elected mayor of the city on a platform to reform municipal government. Thinking long-term, he realized that the city's growth would soon outpace Spring Valley's ability to supply water. He proposed public financing and control of the water system and government-sponsored engineering projects. He set his ambitions on the Tuolumne River and the Hetch Hetchy Valley as the new source of San Francisco's water.

The Hetch Hetchy Valley has been described as Yosemite Valley's sister. It is a glacial valley situated in the northwestern part of Yosemite National Park. This meant the valley was on Federal property. Therefore, Phelan and the city of San Francisco couldn't proceed with any plans without the approval of Congress. But Phelan believed that the Right of Way Act of 1901 gave him a legal loophole, and so in 1902, he submitted a permit application to the Department of Interior to build a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley. The Right of Way Act allowed individuals to traverse federal public lands for economic purposes. Secretary of Interior Ethan Allen Hitchcock declined to grant the city its permit. Phelan lost re-election due to the efforts of the corrupt political machine of the Union Labor Party led by Abe Ruef. Ruef was already scheming to hand the lucrative municipal contract to the rival Bay Cities Water Company. Any plans for Hetch Hetchy were put aside. That is until the earthquake of 1906.

The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 exposed the deficiencies in the city's water system. Fire was the leading cause of damage in the aftermath of the tremors, and the city found itself hampered by a depleted water supply. Many blamed the Spring Valley Waterworks for the failure, and the utility was accused of negligence. Phelan and his allies made quick use of the disaster. They renewed calls for a reliable and steady water source, and they found most citizens united behind them. The idea for a reservoir at Hetch Hetchy had been resurrected.

President Roosevelt's new Secretary of the Interior, James R. Garfield (son of former President Garfield), granted San Francisco their permit in 1908. The decision would be a test of Roosevelt's commitment to conservation. John Muir and the young Sierra Club that he helped found in 1892 organized a campaign against the plans to flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Muir would write some of his most eloquent prose in defense of the valley and make a case for preservation in general. Muir valued wilderness beyond its possible economic gain. Wilderness, for him, didn't need to serve the needs of humans. Wilderness renewed the spirit, provided inspiration, and offered beauty. These were the reasons why it needed to be preserved and protected. Muir brought the fight into the arena of public opinion and appealed to the nation.

(Left to right: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, James Phelan)

Muir faced a formidable array of opponents. These included long-time friend Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot served as the first head of the United States Forest Service created by President Roosevelt to manage the millions of acres of timberland held by the government. As a close ally of Roosevelt, Pinchot had considerable influence, but he approached conservation differently than Muir. He had a utilitarian view of preservation. Nature provided natural resources for humans to utilize, but humans were responsible for using them wisely. Resources needed to be managed and administered for long-term sustainability rather than short-term gain. For Pinchot, the deciding factor was "the greatest good for the greatest number over the long term." The wilderness should not be untouchable. Pinchot testified before Congress that the benefits of a reliable water source to the city of San Francisco outweighed the benefits of leaving the valley in its natural state.

The fight was far from concluded. When Taft took over the presidency in 1909, his Secretary of the Interior reversed the previous decision to grant San Francisco's permit. They placed the burden on the city to defend the decision as to why it needed to be Hetch Hetchy. Citizens of San Francisco, though, voted the following year for their approval of a bond measure to raise funds for the first phase of the dam project. The debate raged on not only in Washington D.C. but also in the newspapers. Muir certainly had sympathizers outside of California, but residents of San Francisco looked at him as a traitor. Preservationists argued to save Hetch Hetchy for public use, but the city lobbyists countered by saying it was for public service, just not recreational use. Pro-development supporters finally won when President Wilson signed the Raker Act in 1913. This gave the green light for the project to commence. Work was begun not only on the Hetch Hetchy dam but on a series of dams, but water from the newly created reservoir would not flow into San Francisco until 1934. Hetch Hetchy would be John Muir's last great battle. He died in 1914, a year after the signing of the Raker Act.

The battle over the Hetch Hetchy, in part, was a fight over public versus private ownership of vital resources such as water. Yet it also highlighted the division within the conservation movement over two fundamental principles: utilitarian conservation versus preservation. The debate surrounding the Hetch Hetchy Valley exemplifies the questions we have struggled with for nearly a century. Do we preserve public lands to protect the environment and for the enjoyment of future generations? Or do we protect public lands to manage resources for economic gain? As the fight of the Bears Ears National Monument indicates, we as a society are far from settling these questions.


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