Restoring Hetch Hetchy

Ken Brower
Solstice 2012

In 1871, on his first walk into Hetch Hetchy Valley, John Muir was struck, as all visitors after him would be, by its uncanny resemblance to Yosemite. Both valleys, Muir noted, run generally east to west, with a northward bend in the middle. At Hetch Hetchy’s western end stand massive spires resembling the Cathedral Rocks of Yosemite. On the north side, exactly where El Capitan would be in Yosemite, towers a similar fortress of granite, Hetch Hetchy Dome. Down the eastern shoulder of this monolith plunges Wapama Falls, 1,800 feet high in those days, pummeling the valley floor in approximately the spot that Yosemite Falls pummels its own valley.

Hetch Hetchy’s floor was apportioned to groves and clearings much as Yosemite’s was, with species almost identical: black oaks, live oaks, Douglas fir, scattered sugar pines and silver fir. Tall grass with edible seeds, hetch hetchy in Miwok, dominated the lower meadow. The Tuolumne River flowed through stands of alder, willow, poplar and dogwood. The stream had enough gradient in a few places to generate riffles, but for the most part, according to Muir, it ran slowly, “often with a lingering expression, as if half inclined to become a lake.” All of which describes exactly how the Merced River flows through Yosemite Valley – no need to change a word.

The “second Yosemite” is gone, drowned in the 1920s by O’Shaughnessy Dam, in order to supply San Francisco with water. Muir’s phrase “half inclined to become a lake” is now deeply ironic. The dam engineers took the river up wholly on its half inclination; the valley is now Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. The dam was a technological marvel for its time, but historians agree that there were wiser places to impound water for San Francisco – places that all remain. Muir died, heartbroken, in 1914, the year after passage of the Raker Act, which cleared the way for the dam and violated Yosemite National Park.

In 1952, my father, David Brower, was hired as the first executive director of the Sierra Club, an organization founded in 1892 by Muir. Like the founder, my father was a charismatic and an ecstatic, though somewhat less so than Muir, and at the Sierra Club he restored a Muir-like style of leadership. The lives of the two conservationists ran parallel. Both were autodidacts. Both were hopelessly in love with the Sierra Nevada. Both loved and nurtured the Sierra Club. Both hated dams.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down,” wrote Robert Frost. Yes, and something there is that does not love a dam. It did not escape my father, as he made his reputation fighting Southwestern dams in the ’50s and ’60s, that O’Shaughnessy Dam in Hetch Hetchy, and Muir’s long struggle against it, were foreshadowings of his own tribulations; that the dead water of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir made a potent symbol for what he and his movement were up against, not just on the Colorado and its tributaries, and not just on rivers, but with threatened species and ecosystems and landscapes everywhere on Earth.

On May 13, 1955, at the height of his campaign against dams that would have flooded Dinosaur National Monument, my father drove to Hetch Hetchy with his 16mm movie camera. In that one day, half spent in Yosemite Valley and half in Hetch Hetchy, he shot the Sierra Club film he called “Two Yosemites.” It was effective propaganda. Hetch Hetchy Reservoir’s water level was down 180 feet that day, its “bathtub ring” particularly tall and ugly.

“What you see here is what you’ll see in most fluctuating reservoirs and what no one should see in a park,” he said in his narration. “Stumps where the basin was cleared, stumps and more stumps, exposed and re-exposed, until silt finally buries them. The stream, which was one of the most beautiful in the Sierra, is silted in. Tuolumne Falls is covered. The flat living space is silted. And as soon as the silt is dry enough, it is on the move, a dustbowl, from the silt that sloughed off the canyon sides when the reservoir was full.”

In the mid ’80s, the damnation of American rivers reversed, and since then dozens of dams have come down. If any trumpet announced the dawn of the new era, it sounded in 1987, when Don Hodel, interior secretary under Ronald Reagan, proposed removal of O’Shaughnessy. The next year, a team of three biologists from Yosemite National Park wrote a paper analyzing various alternatives for the restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley, operating from a set of assumptions that strongly favored one alternative: that the valley was capable of restoring itself.

This was my father’s view. In the first year it might be necessary to expedite the growth of grass, he conceded, and black oaks might have to be replanted. “Leave the rest to nature, and enjoy the spectacle of recovery,” he wrote. “The jay and squirrel are experts at planting oaks. The wind also carries a whole inventory of spores, so there come the ferns, mosses and lichens. Pines and other conifers know how to roll seeds downhill. Happily, Hetch Hetchy Valley is narrow, and the forces of renewal can creep across it.”

No dam as big as O’Shaughnessy has yet to fall, and huge political obstacles remain. But times they are a changin’. Something there is that doesn’t love a dam. Soon again the river may run through it.

About the Author

Ken Brower is the oldest son of the pioneering climber and environmentalist David Brower. Ken’s first memories are of the wild country of the American West. He is the author of The Starship and the Canoe, Wake of the Whale, and many other books, along with hundreds of magazine articles on environmental issues and the natural world.