On a recent trip to Yosemite, I found myself staying in a lodge just a few miles from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir & O’Shaughnessy Dam, so we decided to head into the valley to check out the source of our daily shower & drinking water, as well as much of San Francisco’s electricity.
The Dam, completed in 1923 (with an additional 85 feet added in 1938), provides power for all of San Francisco’s municipal needs, including (but not limited to) General Hospital, San Francisco International Airport, City Hall, and Muni’s electric vehicles (streetcars, LRVs & trolley buses).
It also provides 85% of the City’s water, which is delivered by gravity through 150 miles of pipelines and tunnels that stretch from the Sierras to San Francisco. Because the water is so pure, it’s one of only a small number of city water supplies in the country that doesn’t require filtering.
The Dam & Reservoir are owned by the City & County of San Francisco and operated/maintained by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
Although strongly opposed by John Muir & The Sierra Club for the irreparable harm it would have on the natural beauty of the valley, not to mention the difficulties it would create for the Yosemite-Mono Lake Paiutes Indians, the Dam’s construction was approved by Congress in 1913 with the passage of the Raker Act.
The removal of the Dam and restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley has long been advocated for by organizations such as The Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund & Restore Hetch Hetchy, but surprisingly it’s been Republican politicians that seem to have taken up the cause over the last few decades. One of the first studies on its removal was commissioned in 1987 by then Secretary of the Department of the Interior under President Reagan, Don Hodel. More recently, in 2007, President Bush proposed a $7 million study, and in 2006 Governor Schwarzenegger deemed its removal “feasible”. However many, including Senator Dianne Feinstein and the City & County of San Francisco, remain staunchly opposed to its dismantling.
With proper funding and motivation, I believe the water & power from the Dam & Reservoir could be replaced with other renewable/local sources, allowing Hetch Hetchy Valley to be restored to its original grandeur. Unfortunately, doing so would take far more political will and financial capital than is likely available in the current climate.
In the meantime, I’ll continue enjoying the most delicious tap water a city dweller can find.