Dame in Yosemite State Park

Dame in Yosemite State Park

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Dame in Yosemite State Park

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, a heated debate ensued over the building of a dam in the Hetchy Hetchy Valley in Yosemite State Park. The debate was between the naturalists of the area and the city engineers. I shall explore not only the debate prior to the building of the dam but also its affects on the population since its completion. Being a nature lover myself, I can easily sympathize with the people who wanted to preserve the natural beauty Yosemite, but in light of the facts, I feel that the dam was not only necessary but an overall benefit to the citizens of the surrounding area.

It was after the earthquake of 1906 that the city of San Francisco thought it necessary to build a dam to meet the water and electricity needs of the people. The earthquake was devastating. Firefighters drastically lowered the existing water supply to the area putting out fires the earthquake caused. It was a long drug-out battle that ended in a court of law. The dam was finished in 1923. They later decided to build the dam bigger so that it could produce more water and power to San Francisco. The completion of the final addition to the dam occurred in 1938. (Schaffer). High granite walls form the narrow canyon. The base of the dam is less than 1,000 feet long that creates a reservoir eight miles long and covers 1,861 acres. It measures nearly 370 feet in depth (Boldrick).

John Muir was a naturalist and a strong advocate for leaving untouched the natural beauty of Yosemite. He did not want his beloved park tampered with. He believed the dam would close off the area to the public and restrict access for nature lovers like him who used the area for camping, hiking, and staying in touch with nature. (Muir). The Yosemite Valley had already been closed for three and a half months for the purpose of keeping Tuolumne Meadows clean. It had been proposed that the watershed to the dam also be closed for the same reason. Arguments against building the dam included the problem of inaccessibility to the watershed. However, this argument did not seem a valid one, as the watershed would only need to be closed for three and a half months out of the year.

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To accomplish this, the area would only be affected for a short time. Changes in this regard would be minimal. (Manson).

Manson, an engineer, saw the huge influx of population entering into the San Francisco area. The added pressure to provide water and electricity to the growing population made the construction of a dam imminent in his eyes. (Manson). The recreational needs of the public seemed far less important to Manson than the preservation of the needs of the population. Water is a basic and essential element. In modern times electricity has rapidly become another necessary element for the economic and social health of a productive society. Larger populations naturally caused an increased demand on these needs.

Muir went on further to say that Manson could have picked from any of thirteen different sources for the water needs other than the Hetchy Hetchy River. However, Manson had already explored all the other possibilities before choosing the Hetchy Hetchy River as the best of all possible choices. No other site was comparable in availability, abundance or purity (Manson). Today the Hetchy Hetchy Water & Power (HHWP) supports San Francisco and the Bay area counties with power and light. The HHWP is responsible for maintaining efficient lighting for San Francisco’s streets. Out of all the 40,000 lights in the city HHWP is responsible for all of the lights. It also provides electric power for municipal uses such as MUNI and the International Airport (SFWATER).
A legal argument ensued, a law passed on October 1, 1880, prohibited the use of natural resources in parks. Muir used this to support his argument. However, according to the Act of February 1901, individuals, corporations and municipalities such as San Francisco, had the right to utilize any natural resources that originated in these parks. San Francisco was granted ownership of 720 acres of the 800-900 acre Hetchy Hetchy Valley area. This gave San Francisco the right to do what it felt it needed to with the 720 acres that it owned (Manson).

In the Congress Debate in 1913 a man by the name of Josiah Whitman stated, “You are asked to consider this park as it is at present, with almost nobody using it. Very little attention has been given to what may happen to this park by the year 2000. What will that park be and what will the use of it be to the American public, winter and summer, in the year 2000”. The park visitation in the year 1899 was only 4,500 people. In 1922, tourism in the park rose to just over 100,000 people. By the year 2000, the park visitation rose to a whopping 3,550,065 people (Medley). It is obvious that the building of the dam in Yosemite State Park did not keep people away. It is now 2004 and visitors continue to stream into Yosemite to enjoy its wonders. It has been over 75 years since the dam was built. It continues to be used for the same purpose it was built for in 1923. The city of San Francisco still uses Hetchy Hetchy Reservoir for their main source of water and electricity.

In the past 10 years new debates have arisen to tear down the dam again. Some still fear that the dam was a huge mistake. People are taking Muir’s concerns and expressing them again. They prefer to have a natural park free of man-made elements. However, San Francisco needs Hetchy Hetchy Reservoir for a big part of its electrical needs. In 1910 the population of San Francisco was 416,912. This city was a rapid growing city and it needed water and electricity to help the survival of this city. The city has now grown to 776,773 people (2000 Census). Now the Hetchy Hetchy Dam supplies San Francisco with eighty percent of its water needs. It meets all of the SFPUC standards and gives San Francisco the best high quality drinking water (SFPUC). California needs all the help they can get due to the power outages they have had over the last few years. The new debates are useless. The dam is a reality and it cannot be removed. It would take years of planning and an enormous amount of funds to replace this marvelous dam.
Muir’s concerns were that the dam would take away access to the public in this area was ill founded. Today, there are many things to do out in the area of the Hetchy Hetchy Dam. Highway 120 gives public access to the dam. There are campgrounds, gas stations, stores, a lodge, and a visitor center that is open all summer long until Labor Day. The road stays open as long as it can. They close it after the first big snow fall of the year (Fodor).

One of the main attractions by the dam is the Hetchy Hetchy Backpackers campground. This is located pretty close to the dam and its there for people to enjoy the surroundings. This campground has trails that lead backpacker to the trails around the reservoir. There are a few trails the go almost all the way around the lake. The first trail starts at the campground and follows the northern edge of the reservoir. Its goes on and passes a few enormous waterfalls: Tueeulalo Falls and Wapama Falls. Then it keeps going past the Lake and loops around and comes back to the southern park of the reservoir and connects back with the campground. This trail also connects to many other trails that are available to hike in Yosemite State Park. Obviously, they had taken Muir’s thoughts and concerns into consideration and made it so people could enjoy the beauty of the Reservoir.

Being a naturalist, John Muir argued most importantly that construction of a dam in the valley would ruin the scenic beauty of the area (Muir). He made a good point, but he failed to mention that the cliffs rose to heights of over 2500 feet and that damming up the river would only cause the water level to rise 275-300 feet. Manson believed this would not ruin the beauty at all. Having a crystal clear and clean lake would enhance the beauty of the area by giving people something beautiful to enjoy. It could also bring in other plants, flowers, birds or fish, which would further the natural essence of the valley (Manson).

Of course, even today, there are people who would and still do argue that preserving natural areas is important for future generations. I believe that as well because I enjoy the scenic beauty, peace and tranquility that nature has to offer. However, if you look at the facts on this debate, the choice is quite simple and clear. Building a dam may remove some of the beauty, but it will also bring in other means of beauty to enhance the naturalness of the area. Accessibility will be partially affected, and then only for a brief period each year. Sometimes you have to give a little to get something in return. It was already proven that it was the best location for the dam in relation to what the area had to offer when compared to other areas. Finally, the legal side supported construction of the dam because it would allow San Francisco to utilize the natural resources for the good of its people. They weren’t trying to destroy nature; they were trying to provide basic needs for the future population growth of the area. The sacrifices were few compared to the benefits. Overall, I support the survival of the human race and its immediate needs over the natural beauty of the Hetchy Hetchy River Valley.


2000 Census. (2000). San Francisco Population. Retrieved April, 4, 2004, from http://sfpl.lib.ca.us/librarylocations/main/gic/sfpop2000.htm

Anderson, C., Runciman, L., (2001). A Forest of Voices ( 2nd ed.). Mayfield, CA: Mayfield Piblishing Company. Manson, Marsden. A Statement of San Francisco’s Side.

Anderson, C., Runciman, L., (2001). A Forest of Voices ( 2nd ed.). Mayfield, CA: Mayfield Piblishing Company. Muir, John. (1884, 1901). Hetch Hetchy Valley. The Mountains of California and Our National Parks.

Boldrick, Michael. (2000).Hetch Hetchy Getaway, A Beautiful Corner of Yosemite. Free Press. Retrieved April 8, 2004, from http://www.clovisnews.com/trails/hetchhetchy.html
Fodor, (2004). HETCH HETCHY RESERVOIR AND TUOLUMNE MEADOWS. Retrieved April, 11, 2004, from www.fodors.com

Medley, Steven P. (2002). The Complete Guidebook to Yosemite National Park. San Francisco, CA: Reineck & Reineck.

Schaffer, Jeffrey P. (2003). Yosemite National Park: A natural-History Guide to Yosemite and Its Trails. Berkley, California: Wilderness Press

SFPUC, (2003). 2002 Annual Sanitary Survey Update Report for the Hetch Hetchy Water Supply Executive Summary. Retrieved April, 11, 2004 from http://sfwater.org/detail.cfm/MSC_ID/68/MTO_ID/122/MC_ID/4/C_ID/1546/holdSession/1
SFWATER. (2003). Department: Hetch Hetchy Water and Power. Retrieved April, 10, 2004, from http://sfwater.org/orgDetail.cfm/MO_ID/20
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