Judge Gray: Restore Hetch Hetchy Valley!

hetch hetchy

The Functional Libertarian Series
October 24, 2013

Those of you who have read this column more than a few times can probably tell that innately I am an optimist. For example, recently I have predicted that our nation’s policy of Drug Prohibition will be ended within only a few years. I believe that is true, but I acknowledge that it is an optimistic thought. But one thing that even an optimist like me does not see happening anytime soon is that the lake behind the O’Shaughnessy Dam will be drained and the Hetch Hetchy Valley will once again be restored to its original grandeur. But it should be, and we should all work together for that result.

As you probably know, Hetch Hetchy is a 3 mile long by 1/8 to 1/2 mile wide valley immediately north of Yosemite Valley. It is bordered on the north by the Hetch Hetchy Dome, which rises to an elevation of 6,197 feet, and the Kolana Rock on the south, which rises to 5,772 feet. As a glacially-carved valley, it is so spectacular that it is contained within Yosemite National Park and often is called a second Yosemite.

But, unfortunately, as a result of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, some politically powerful people were so concerned about the adequacy of the water supply in that area that they were able to get the Raker Act passed in 1913 that authorized the O’Shaughnessy Dam to be constructed and the valley turned into a lake. Ever since that time, San Francisco has been supplied by both that water and the electricity that has been generated from that dam.

John Muir considered the construction of that dam and the loss of that valley to be his largest environmental failure. When confronted with that possibility, he snorted: “Dam Hetch Hetchy? As well dam for water tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has even been consecrated by the hearts of man!”

And he is right. Wapama Falls and Tuceulala Falls enter the valley from heights of about 1,340 and 840 feet, respectively, whereas Bridalveil Falls in Yosemite Valley has a height of 620 feet. And the average height from the valley floor to the mountain tops is about 1,800 feet. But now the valley floor is covered with an average of 300 feet of water.

From one perspective, San Francisco really no longer needs this dam, because the water could easily be trapped and held at lower dams. But the loss of the electricity is a big problem, because that cannot readily be replaced.

Nevertheless, the law is on the side of reclaiming the valley. The Raker Act stated expressly that the water and power could only be utilized for public interests. But long ago the City of San Francisco sold both to Pacific Gas and Electric, which has been making money on them ever since. So there is a strong argument that the act has been violated, and the valley should be reclaimed.

Yes, it would be difficult completely to remove the concrete dam and haul away the rubble, particularly from such a remote place. But this could be one of the most stimulating and rewarding environmental projects of modern history. And, besides, the entire dam would not have to be removed. The valley could be reclaimed simply by draining the lake, and cutting off a slice of the dam. It would not be as natural as some would want, but it still would obtain the right result.

If you love natural beauty and have never seen Hetch Hetchy, you should treat yourself. John Muir, who is probably America’s most famous naturalist, said that “Hetch Hetch Valley is a grand landscape garden, one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples.” Obviously, there are not an abundance of those spots around, and we should build a movement to reclaim, and then protect, those which we have.

If you agree, please visit www.hetchhetchy.org for more information, and see how to get more involved. Let’s all show that, once again, optimism can bear fruit.

James P. Gray is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the composer of the high school musical revue “Americans All,” and was the 2012 Libertarian candidate for Vice President, along with Governor Gary Johnson as the candidate for President. Judge Gray can be contacted at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net.

10 thoughts on “Judge Gray: Restore Hetch Hetchy Valley!

  1. Jeremy C. Young

    This is an awesome article, and a great way for Libertarians to build a bridge to Progressives. I can’t remember the last time I saw a politician who was not a Green Party candidate (or Al Gore) advocate an environmentalist position! Bravo to Gray for this one.

  2. Jill Pyeatt Post author

    I’m in California, and am a mountains, especially Yosemite, lover, so I’ve been wondering if this articel would mean anything to anyone out of California. Are you in CA, Jeremy?

  3. camp mather

    You obviously don’t live in San Francisco or on the San Mateo Peninsula. We who live here depend on the water, and the clean electricity.

    Those of you who would like to turn HH into another tourist attraction, taking out San Francisco’s family camp, Camp Mather, to make a cement processing facility are obviously callous to the effects this would have to a large population. This might also affect SoCal as there would not be spare water to send south.

    The idea that there are plentiful sources for SF to get water is fallacious, or at best a pipe dream. None of the downstream communities are keen to send their water to SF. The idea of finding groundwater is unlikely, and would consume energy and money and create problems.

    And, the question needs to be asked, who is standing in line to make money providing power and potable water to SF and the Peninsula? The current head of RHH (restore Hetch Hetchy) is a scion of the Spreckles and Rosekrans families of SF, big money and old money. I am sure there is a business plan.

    SF got the O’Shaugnessy Dam to protect ts people from gauging by the water sellers. Is there a reason we should give up our secure water source so that people can clog the HH Valley filling it with exhaust as they clog Yosemite Valley?

    Say no. No, no, no.

  4. Jill Pyeatt Post author

    When I ran for the Assembly in 2006, my district was ridiculously spread out and contained quite a few communities in the desert that were very different from the community I lived in. I learned quickly that water supply was a bit deal in those communities, so I set about to learn what I could about the politics of water in California. Surprise, surprise–it was very difficult to learn anything.I never could figure out exactly who the good guys and the bad guys were.

    I did learn that Los Angeles was grabbing a lot of precious water from many sources. It seems to me Mono Lake, which is up by the Yosemite/Hetch Hetchy area, was being destroyed in the meantime. However, if you drive up to Sacramento through the Central Valley where all the farms used to be, there are signs saying they can’t grow food without the water. So, what’s going on? It’s probably an enormous, complicated mess.

  5. langa

    The whole notion of “price gouging” is preposterous. Obviously, when the demand for a good exceeds the supply of that good, the price of the good will tend to rise, which is a beneficial outcome, as it sends a signal to other potential suppliers that there is money to be made, thus giving them an incentive to increase the supply of that good. That is not “price gouging”, but rather, an example of the free market working to efficiently allocate resources.

    Having said that, I’m certainly not an expert on the politics of water in California, and I would not be surprised to learn that there may be artificial water “shortages” that were created by government intervention, which would obviously complicate matters. But the idea that in a true free market (which California obviously is not), the absence of government intervention would lead to predatory “price gouging” is pure fiction, born from a poor understanding of economics.

  6. paulie

    I’m in California, and am a mountains, especially Yosemite, lover, so I’ve been wondering if this artice would mean anything to anyone out of California.

    Yes, it does.

  7. camp mather


    Tourists in and outside of California might like to spend a day in Hetch Hetchy, but the loss of that waster and clean power does not impact them.

    It seriously impacts every person in San Francisco and on the San Mateo Peninsula.

    It would also cut into the amount of water we could send south to SoCal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.