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Flooding Hetch Hetchy: The sin Congress helped the City of San Francisco commit
Dennis Wyatt 2022
Dennis Wyatt

I stood alone watching water cascading 1,310 feet down over granite just hours after sunrise.

Some 15 minutes passed before another soul appeared.

Yes, the waterfalls ringing Yosemite Valley are indeed a bit grander — Yosemite Falls is the 18th longest in the world at 2,428 feet — and larger in number. But that comes with a price. People. A lot of people. So much at times you feel you are at Disneyland rather than enjoying a wilderness experience.

But Wapama Falls — and Hetch Hetchy Valley — is an entirely different experience. You can see why the flooding of Hetch Hetchy Valley by the City of San Francisco is said to have broken John Muir’s heart.

 It’s stark granite walls with numerous dramatic cliffs carved by glaciers — much like its bigger cousin to the north — are an impressive sight.

So is the surrounding wilderness that includes backpacking trips into the deeper southwest interior of the park or gazing over Hetch Hetchy from atop the highest vantage point in the area — Smith Peak at 7,551 feet.

The battle to save Hetch Hetchy was lost on Dec. 19, 1913.

That’s when several strokes of a pen by President Woodrow Wilson did what would be unthinkable today — the intentional flooding of a national park for the purpose of fueling growth of a city.

But to Muir and the mobilized forces of the fledging Sierra Club that was founded in 1892, what was being desecrated to fuel San Francisco’s growth wasn’t a run-of-the-mill valley.

It was a valley those that saw it before it was flooded 10 years later said rivaled the nearby and larger Yosemite Valley for stunning beauty in the form of majestic waterfalls spilling over glacier carved granite with a lush valley below.

And although the outcome was horrific for defenders of Hetch Hetchy, the sacrifice wasn’t in vain.

The selfish act of exploiting a national park with the help of Congress, for a bargain basement price of $30,000 a year in rent that has remained unchanged for a century despite the ravages of inflation, was not entirely for naught.

The grassroots battle joined by thousands to save a remote mountain valley spurned a national movement to protect America’s natural treasures.

The loss of what some then — and many now — believe was an irreplaceable national treasure, led to the establishment of the National Park Service.

The formation  of that agency in 1916 was to serve the goal of preserving national parks for future generations.

And while the battle for Hetch Hetchy might have been lost, the war still rages.

The Oakland-based Restore Hetch Hetchy founded in 1999 is continuing the fight.

Its ultimate goal is to do as the non-profit’s name implies — restore Hetch Hetchy.

In the meantime, the organization works tirelessly to press the federal government to force the City of San Francisco to honor the pact President Wilson and the Congress made with the devil.

Among those terms the City of San Francisco agreed to when they signed the 1913 Raker Act allowing  O’Shaughnessy Dam to be built on the Tuolumne River was allowing recreational uses such as non-motorized watercraft, camping and picnicking at Hetch Hetchy and Lake Eleanor in exchange for flooding the valley.  

The City of San Francisco has steadfastly refused to honor those provisions.

Today, access to the Hetch Hetchy area is restricted to a set number of hours per day at the insistence of the City of San Francisco. Daytime hiking is allowed.

San Francisco’s $30,000 annual payment leveraged $453 million in water and power sales in 2018.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission — a city agency with a $1.3 billion budget — also pays $8 million to Yosemite National Park.

That $8 million covers security costs and watershed protection at Hetch Hetchy which essentially protects the city’s investment as opposed to furthering the mission of the National Park Service in forming Yosemite National Park for public use and preservation.

Efforts over the years in Congress have focused on restoring the valley. They haven’t targeted raising the 1913-era rent to modern-day market value or even indexing it for inflation.

Based on inflation, a 2020 study indicated the city should be paying $800,000 a year and not $30,000.

The extra $770,000 a year would be a start at helping Yosemite National Park tackle a $500 million backlog of maintenance needs within its nearly 1,200 square miles as identified in a 2016 by the National Park Service.

A report dubbed “The Dam Rent is Too Low” published by the Property and Environmental Research Center weighed San Francisco being treated like other park concessioners. As such, the city should pay 8 percent of its profits from electricity and water sales. That would have reflected a $36 million annual rent in 2018 based on $543 million in sales.

The ultimate goal of restoring Hetch Hetchy by replacing San Francisco’s water storage further downstream by enlarging Don Pedro Reservoir as one possibility, could queue up a rare opportunity.

Not only would it would it allow the restoration of the valley but in doing so it could be done in a manner that allows its use by future generations in a less commercial and intrusive manner than how Yosemite Valley developed.

To see what all of  the fuss is about, take a trip to Hetch Hetchy

You can reach the day use parking lot at the edge of O’Shaughnessy Dam in 2.5 hours from Manteca. It is a straight shot on Highway 120 with a left turn onto Evergreen Road just before the Big Oak Flat entrance station to Yosemite National Park.

But unlike the rest of Yosemite, vehicle access to Hetch Hetchy Valley is restricted. The gate is only open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Access requires purchasing  a Yosemite pass for $35. It is good for seven days as well as access to the rest of the national park.

My ultimate destination is usually Rancheria Falls, a classic cascading ribbon falls that are a 13-mile round trip from the parking lot.   

But if you’re not into hiking but you don’t mind a slight challenge making the trip just to see Wapama Falls is worth it as well as being do-able.

The 1,310-foot Wapama Falls  whose last 400 feet are currently covered by reservoir water will provide the “wow” factor without making you feel as if you’ve been on the Bataan Death March.

Wapama Falls is just under a five mile round trip. A series of bridges will take you across the falls.

The snowmelt usually peaks in May often making this segment treacherous. A rule worth following is not to cross the bridges when water is flowing over them. That is how a pair of hikers lost their lives several years back.

The odds are this year through much of May, waterfalls will be at their crescendo whether it is the Hetch Hetchy Valley or Yosemite Valley.

You can fish in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir but swimming is prohibited. Dogs and other pets are prohibited on all trails and the dam. There is plenty of poison oak and it is an active bear area.

Its relatively low elevation at 4,000 feet is a plus for year-round hiking and it doesn’t draw the crowds that would make it feel like downtown San Francisco.

Remember the stunning beauty that you’ll enjoy is just a sliver of what John Muir valiantly tried to prevent from being  flooded so that  generations to come could enjoy — you and me and our great-great grandchildren.