Opinion Columns & Blogs

Viewpoints: Time to return Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy to the American people

After 100 years, it’s time to set Yosemite free.

Yosemite National Park has been crippled for the last 100 years. It’s time for healing.

In 1913 – for the only time in American history – by passing The Raker Act, Congress allowed one of our national parks to be invaded and developed by a single municipality. The act permitted San Francisco to build a dam in Yosemite, flooding the once iconic Hetch Hetchy Valley under 300 feet of water.

The decision sparked opposition from more than 200 newspaper editorials nationwide. Though national parks were a recent idea, they had already been widely embraced. But San Francisco’s well-oiled political machine prevailed by exploiting national sympathy for the city in the wake of the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire. On Dec. 19, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Raker Act into law.

Only three years later, public outrage over the seizure of Hetch Hetchy Valley caused Congress to pass the National Park Service Act. This act ensured that our parks would be preserved and managed for the enjoyment of all Americans. So in many ways, the desecration of Yosemite also inspired our nation’s conservation movement, and no such intrusions in our parks have been allowed since.

But Hetch Hetchy Valley remains underwater.

When it was created, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir was the largest in the Sierra Nevada region. But it is modest in size by today’s standards and stores only a portion of San Francisco’s water. A series of studies, including those by the U.S. government, UC Davis and the Environmental Defense Fund, have shown that San Francisco could divert its water outside of Yosemite.

In other words, San Francisco could meet its water needs without storing water in Yosemite National Park.

Other communities in California have taken actions in far greater magnitude to make our waterways more sustainable. They have restored Mono Lake, improved stream flows on the North Coast and in the Central Valley and diminished the threat to native fish in the Bay Delta. Los Angeles, Orange County and San Jose have developed ambitious water recycling programs and have vastly improved local groundwater management. Central Valley farms have installed enough drip irrigation strips to reach the moon and back, an improvement that also enables more efficient application of fertilizer and pesticides. California’s largest water agencies, in the urban and agricultural sectors alike, have invested in ambitious groundwater banking programs in Kern County.

But San Francisco officials have shown no interest in even thinking about ending its occupation of Yosemite. In 2006, when the California Department of Water Resources reviewed the feasibility of the restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley, San Francisco declined to provide any analysis. And in 2012, when an initiative to draft a restoration plan was placed before voters, city politicians locked arms to ensure its defeat.

San Francisco may have a “green” reputation, but if we wait for the city to reconsider its water system, we may be waiting another century. It’s time for an intervention. Congress should hold hearings on the potential for restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley as part of California’s overall water portfolio. Rational independent analysis will confirm that it’s possible to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley while meeting San Francisco’s water needs.

Restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley will not only restore the integrity of Yosemite National Park, it will also resurrect one of the most ecologically diverse and scenic areas in our national park system – a twin of the famed Yosemite Valley, 15 miles to its south.

It’s time to return Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley to the American people.