Like Mono Lake, Like Hetch Hetchy

Carl Boronkay is the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District

Whatever potential there is for returning the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park to its natural state derives from the landmark case brought by the Audubon Society concerning the preservation, in one form or another, of Mono Lake.

In the Mono Lake case the California Supreme Court has ruled that water in natural circumstances belongs to the public. While the state can allow the use of that water by municipalities and others, it may not give up all interest in perpetuity to the water. Rather, the state holds its interest in trust for the public. Accordingly, the state can, from time to time, reconsider its decisions allowing the use of water granted to a city.

This is what Los Angeles is now facing. For more than 45 years the city has had the right, granted by the state, to divert to its aqueduct certain streams that would otherwise flow into Mono Lake.

The long-term result has been a lowering of the level of the lake, nestled in the eastern Sierra.


After the state’s approval to divert the water, Los Angeles spent great sums to ensure its residents a water supply from this source. In addition, substantial hydroelectric power is produced.

Yet it is the present position of certain environmental organizations and individuals that society should take another look at its earlier decision, made through a state agency, that viewed the future needs of a great metropolis as being more important than the maintenance of Mono Lake, a saline body of water not habitable by fish.

The state will do this, subject to inevitable court reviews. In arriving at a decision, the state will not be writing on a clean slate, but will have to evaluate the situation as it is today, considering not only the environmental values of a restored (at some level) lake but also the consequences to the people of Los Angeles and others from eliminating or reducing this source of water and power. The availability of alternative sources and costs are among the factors that must be considered.

Now turn to the bold suggestion of Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel that consideration be given to tearing down O’Shaughnessy Dam and draining the reservoir in Hetch Hetchy Valley, the principal source of water for the City of San Francisco.


Again we have before us for review a government decision made about 75 years ago that favored the water supply for an expanding metropolitan area over the environmental values of maintaining the valley.

The decision must have been a difficult one, for strong forces were found on both sides of the questions--the opposition being led by naturalist John Muir.

Having the established court precedent that decisions allocating water are subject to the public-trust obligations of the state and may properly be reconsidered from time to time, it is difficult to conclude that Hetch Hetchy should not also be reviewed. This is not to prejudge the conclusion, but only to say that this study is no less justified than that for Mono Lake.

Such a study would have to weigh the value of a restored Hetch Hetchy, generally regarded as a smaller twin of Yosemite Valley, versus the costs and availability of an alternative supply and the costs of bringing the valley back to life.


In both the Mono Lake and Hetch Hetchy cases it must be recognized that some of the factors to be considered are more objective than others: alternative water and power supplies and costs vs. aesthetics and environmental values.

Personal judgments cannot be avoided: Mark Twain regarded Mono Lake as a God-forsaken place; state Supreme Court Justice Allen E. Broussard, in the Audubon Society case, called it a national treasure.

To disclose a personal bias, it seems that on Broussard’s scale Hetch Hetchy would have to be called a world treasure.

In any case we, as a society, have the right and the duty to review decisions allocating the use of water held by the state in trust for the public.


Those who are so strong to urge such a review of Mono Lake should be just as eager to review Hetch Hetchy. After all, “what is sauce for the goose is sauce for a gander.”