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Are We Ready to Kiss Our Big Dams Goodbye?

San Francisco's major source of drinking water comes from Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy, but there's a growing campaign to have the reservoir drained and returned to the park.

In 1941, Woody Guthrie had one of the most unlikely muses. The soon-to-be folk legend wrote 26 songs in just one month espousing the glories of hydroelectric dams. He did pick up a government paycheck for $266.66 for his efforts, though. In "Grand Coulee Dam," Guthrie likened the structure to the "greatest thing yet built by human hands," and sang, "she ripped our boats to splinters but she gave us dreams/dream of the day the Coulee Dam would cross that wild and wasted stream."

Guthrie captured the sentiment of the time perfectly: If you weren't damming a river, then it was being wasted. The 1930s and '40s saw the creation of mammoth projects like Hoover and Bonneville and Coulee. Those weren't the first and surely won't be the last. The US has an estimated 80,000 dams. In the American West, dams turned desert into farmland, and supplied power and drinking water to cities that couldn't have existed without them. The people of Guthrie's time heralded these accomplishments.

Or most of the people, anyway. Guthrie was born in 1912. In that same year, famed naturalist John Muir was fighting a project that would dam the Tuolumne River as it flowed out of the Sierras and flood Hetch Hetchy Valley in California's Yosemite National Park. In a plea to save the valley, Muir eloquently told Congress that Hetch Hetchy was "one of Nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples."

But the O'Shaughnessy Dam was built and the valley was flooded in 1923. San Francisco gained a prized reservoir and hydroelectric capacity. Muir died in 1914 but the fight over Hetch Hetchy -- nearly 100 years later -- is still going.

This fall voters in San Francisco will be asked to take the first step in a process that could result in the draining of the reservoir, the removal of O'Shaughnessy Dam and the restoration of the valley. But not everyone is convinced it's a good thing -- especially the state's leading political powers.

Goodbye Big Dams?

The prescient John Muir knew something that took most of the world a century to figure out. Big dams aren't necessarily a win-win. "Progress," something that seemed like a given during the early 20th century, looks a little bit murkier now as the silt is piling up inside reservoirs, the fish are dying off in dammed streams, and wild places and creatures have been pushed to extinction.

It may be that our love affair with big infrastructure has cooled. Last September a crowd gathered near the mouth of the Elwha River in Washington's Olympic peninsula to witness an excavator tearing through some of the concrete structure of the Elwha Dam. The historic event kicked off a three-year process that will include the removal of two dams on the river in what has been dubbed the largest dam removal project in US history.

At the time, Juliet Eilperin wrote for the Washington Post, "The pace of removal has quickened, with 241 dams demolished between 2006 and 2010, more than a 40 percent increase over the previous five years." Organizations like American Rivers have been leading the charge. "Our expertise and advocacy have directly contributed to the removal of more than 150 dams across the country," the organization says.

But are San Franciscans ready to see O'Shaughnessy Dam next on the shopping block?

The Case for Restoring Hetch Hetchy

Mike Marshall believes San Francisco needs an overhaul of its water management strategy. He works as executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy, the organization behind the Yosemite Restoration Campaign, which filed paperwork this month to bring a ballot measure to the voters of San Francisco in November. The measure, the Water Sustainability and Environmental Restoration Planning Act of 2012, would not immediately seek the draining of Hetch Hetchy reservoir, but instead asks the city to come up with a long-term plan for improving local water supplies and reducing harm to the Tuolumne River and Yosemite National Park.

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