The Debate

The Arguments

Gifford Pinchot and James Phelan
(PBS-National Parks) (SFPUC)

San Francisco, U.S. Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot, and Mayor James Phelan's Argument 

- San Francisco was in need of water to nourish its growing population

- The need for electricity was increasing and Hetch Hetchy could provide hydroelectric power

- San Francisco wanted to break the water monopoly of Spring Valley Water Company

- Hetch Hetchy was the most economical water source available

- Our Natural Resources should be put to use to serve the most people

(see Gifford Pinchot's testimony before Congress in favor of damming the Hetch Hetchy Valley)
John Muir c. 1900
(PBS-National Parks)

John Muir and the Sierra Club's Counterargument

- There are other sources of water further downstream

- The Hetch Hetchy Valley was "uncommon feature" not found often in nature

- Submerging Hetchy Hetchy would NOT enhance its beauty by creating a crystal-clear lake

- Damming Hetch Hetchy would come at a universal public loss for the private gain of a few

John Muir thought Hetch Hetchy Valley was a gift from God that shouldn't be destroyed

(see John Muir's open letter to the American Public regarding Hetch Hetchy Valley)

The Timeline

         The first time San Francisco applied for the water rights to Hetch Hetchy was in 1901.  After applying annually for years and being denied, the city's argument for Hetch Hetchy was revived by a natural disaster. On April 18, 1906, a massive earthquake devastated the city and highlighted the city's need for a stable water supply.  

San Francisco's Great Earthquake and Hetch Hetchy
(Restore Hetch Hetchy - Yosemite's Lost Valley)


    In 1908, San Francisco voters approved building a dam at Hetch Hetchy. In 1913, after more than a decade of debate, Congress passed the Raker Act approving the dam.  O'Shaughnessy Dam was completed in 1923 and on October 24, 1934, water from the Hetch Hetchy project finally began pouring into San Francisco. 
Dedication ceremony for completion of Hetch Hetchy System at the Pulgas Water Temple, 1934
(San Francisco Public Utilities Commission)