It's A Gray Area: Join in restoring Hetch Hetchy

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 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 any time soon is the draining of the lake behind the O'Shaughnessy Dam and the restoration to its original grandeur of Hetch Hetchy Valley. But it should be, and we should all work together for that result.

Hetch Hetchy Valley is 3 miles long and 1/8 to 1/2 miles wide. It is bordered on the north by the Hetch Hetchy Dome, which rises to 6,197 feet, and the Kolana Rock on the south, with an elevation of 5,772 feet.

This spectacular glacially carved valley 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 concerned about the adequacy of the water supply in that area were able to get the Raker Act passed in 1913, authorizing the O'Shaughnessy Dam to be constructed and the valley turned into a lake. Ever since, San Francisco has been supplied by that water and the electricity generated from that dam.

Naturalist John Muir considered the construction of the 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!"

He is right. Wapama Falls and Tueeulala Falls enter the valley from heights of about 1,340 and 840 feet, respectively, whereas Bridalveil Fall 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; 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 San Francisco sold both to Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which has been making money on them ever since.

Yes, it would be difficult to completely 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.

Muir, who is probably America's most famous naturalist, said, "Hetch Hetchy 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 protect those we have.

If you agree, visit 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 Orange County Superior Court judge. He lives in Newport Beach. He can be contacted at

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