Hetch Hetchy: An Historic Opportunity for the Administration

John Mirisch
Mayor of Beverly Hills

Just a few days ago Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove re-opened after a three-year restoration project to remove the asphalt parking lot and trails that have jeopardized the long-term health of its magnificent giant sequoias.

The reopening of the Grove presents Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and the Administration with a rare opportunity to correct an historic injustice and to fix one of the biggest environmental mistakes of the 20th Century.  Secretary Zinke describes himself as “an unapologetic admirer of Teddy Roosevelt,” who famously visited Yosemite National Park with John Muir, our nation’s patron saint of conservation and environmental protection.

Yosemite National Park is one of the most beautiful places in the world.  And yet a section of the Park which naturalist John Muir declared to be one of Yosemite’s most sublime landscapes, “one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples,” is not accessible to anybody.

Because it’s under water.  Because 105 years ago, Congress, feeling sorry for San Francisco, which had just experienced a devastating earthquake and fire, authorized the building of the O’Shaughnessy Dam.  If the notion of storing water in the hallowed valley of a national park seems crazy, it is.  Especially when there are other options.

Yet San Franciscans stubbornly refuse to even consider removal of the dam and storing the exact same water downstream, without losing a single drop.  Senator Dianne Feinstein, erstwhile mayor of San Francisco, has called Hetch Hetchy water the “birthright” of San Franciscans.

State senator Scott Wiener, former San Francisco supervisor, rejected the idea of restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley to the American people as “a terrible idea,” “crazy” and a “disaster.”  Like most San Franciscans, he is completely unconcerned with the loss of a precious natural resource which goes far beyond the utilitarian.

But if Hetch Hetchy water is the “birthright” of San Franciscans, isn’t the Yosemite National Park itself the birthright of all Californians, of all Americans, of all people on the planet Earth?

Just what would another majestic valley mean for all of us who love Yosemite, for whom the very word “Yosemite” can magically conjure up a synesthesia of the awe-inspiring vistas of nature, the sounds of flowing water, the smell of nature at its purest, things we can carry with us in our daily lives wherever we may be?

As anyone who values our national parks knows, Yosemite, along with other national parks, is being “loved to death.”  As Dayton Duncan, who scripted and produced Ken Burns’s documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” wrote:

“These parks belong to all of us. We should all visit them and enjoy them. With more champions of our parks, we can love them to renewed life instead of to death.”

San Franciscans’ water needs can be met by storage at a combination of dams further downstream.  Our national parks cannot be replaced, and it is our duty as Americans to love the irreplaceable Hetch Hetchy Valley of Yosemite National Park back to renewed life.

Instead of recognizing the sheer insanity of using what is one of the world’s most beautiful national parks for water storage, San Franciscans like Scott Wiener double down and tout the “amazing engineering feat” of the O’Shaughnessy Dam and aqueduct system.  Funny, neither he nor any other San Franciscans make the same claims about William Mulholland’s Owens Valley, gravity-based aqueduct system which transports water to Los Angeles.

Of course, here we have the essence of San Francisco’s thoroughly hypocritical position in regard to its water supply.  If LA destroyed part of a national park for its water supply, you can bet your bottom dollar that San Francisco would be screaming from the rooftops of Pacific Heights to restore it, all in the name of environmental justice.

San Francisco’s political class, which controls state politics, has been wrong about Hetch Hetchy for over a hundred years.  They continue to be wrong.

Secretary Zinke has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to follow in the footsteps of a Republican president who himself is revered by Democrats and Republicans alike.  As Zinke noted during his confirmation hearing in the Senate, “there are lands that deserve special recognition and are better managed under the John Muir model of wilderness, where man has a light touch and is an observer.”  By moving to restore Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite to the American people, Zinke could restore the legacies of both Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir.

San Francisco clearly believes it “stole Hetch Hetchy fair and square” from the American people and should there be any moves by the Administration to restore Hetch Hetchy, San Francisco would undoubtedly oppose any proposal, even if the net result is historical and environmental justice.  While this is not and should not be a partisan political issue, San Francisco politicians would naturally try to frame this as the Trump Administration’s attack on “liberal” San Francisco and would paint their own obstinacy in despoiling Yosemite as “resistance” to the Trump Administration.

The rest of us need to reject this Lewis Carroll brand of politics.  There is nothing “liberal” about hijacking our greatest national park for selfish, parochial interests and there is nothing noble about continuing to withhold the priceless treasure that is the Hetch Hetchy Valley from the American people.

Instead of worrying what California’s San Francisco ruling elite thinks, Secretary Zinke and the Administration should work to honor the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt by restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley to all of us, by allowing its indescribable beauty to inspire us all, as it once inspired John Muir, and by ensuring that it can serve as an inspiration to future generations of Americans.

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