As a die-hard environmentalist, I'm not proud of the fact that my great-grandfather, a San Francisco water engineer, was an early proponent of O'Shaughnessy Dam. For over 90 years now, this 400-foot concrete wall has blocked the Tuolumne River at the lower end of Hetch Hetchy Valley in northwestern Yosemite National Park, primarily to provide water for San Francisco.
Surrounded by rugged peaks and dramatic waterfalls, in its former state Hetch Hetchy Valley contained vast grasslands, oak woodlands and pine forests which sustained Native Americans as well as grizzly bears, big horn sheep and numerous other life. In its beauty and richness, it was known to rival its sister landscape, Yosemite Valley. Now an 8-mile, 300-foot deep reservoir covers Hetch Hetchy Valley, resembling a long bath tub.
Seeking water for its burgeoning population, for decades the City of San Francisco lobbied hard to build the dam, finally getting its way when President Wilson signed a law allowing the project to proceed. As one of the country's first major environmental battles, opposing the project was part of John Muir's campaign to save Yosemite. Muir once wrote that drowning Hetch Hetchy Valley was comparable to turning the world's great cathedrals and churches into water tanks. There were other better alternatives to provide water, he and many others said.
A plan to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley to its former self by removing the dam, while developing alternative water storage, has been afoot for many years. On the face of it, this massive restoration project appears unrealistic, although those who support it say studies have shown it is not.
When I take a drink from my faucet at home, it's hard to begrudge my great-grandfather his efforts to secure water for us San Franciscans. But there's another important reason to forgive him. He gave me the gift of his daughter, my grandmother, who took me camping as a child and spurred my love for everything wild. It is in this spirit that I sometimes allow myself to overlook the practical, and embrace the dream of a wild Hetch Hetchy Valley.