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Hetch Hetchy centennial marked

President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation Dec. 19, 1913, that authorized the damming and flooding of the Hetch Hetchy valley — a controversial decision that remains a topic of debate 100 years later.

The Raker Act allowed the city of San Francisco to build O’Shaughnessy Dam and convert the valley into a reservoir, despite opposition from conservation advocates at the time.

The law’s centennial draws mixed reactions, depending on whom you ask.

For the City and County of San Francisco, it was a significant step in the development of the Bay Area.

San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which operates the Hetch Hetchy water and power system, plans to unveil a display Dec. 19 in San Francisco City Hall that will include the actual pen Wilson used to sign the act.

“The Raker Act was a collaborative effort that ensured tremendous economic growth in California,” said SFPUC General Manager Harlan Kelly. “Its centennial reminds us that public infrastructure is the backbone of our communities, and that we must continue to invest in our systems for the future.”

For others, the monumental day won’t be a time for celebration.

Restore Hetch Hetchy, a Bay Area nonprofit organization which has led the charge to remove the dam since 1999, released a statement to supporters this week calling the anniversary an “unhappy centennial.”

“As people learn more about the treasure they lost 100 years ago when Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley was dammed, support for restoration grows,” said Spreck Rosekrans, Restore Hetch Hetchy’s executive director. “We do not oppose San Francisco’s diversions from the Tuolumne River — we only ask that they not store water in Yosemite National Park.”

Discussion of draining the reservoir spurred a 2006 study. Commissioned by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, it estimated that removing the dam and restoring the valley would cost between $3 billion and $10 billion.

In 2012, Restore Hetch Hetchy backed a failed ballot initiative, Proposition F, that would have required the City and County of San Francisco to begin developing a plan to drain the reservoir and identify alternative water and renewable energy sources.

Rather than seeing the initiative’s failure as a defeat, Restore Hetch Hetchy’s leaders looked to use the awareness raised by the campaign to continue fighting for the valley’s restoration.

Now, the group is planning to continue its fight in state and federal courts or take the issue to Congress, Rosekrans said.

“We see this as a battle we intend to win and see our support growing,” he said.

P.J. Johnston, spokesman for the Save Hetch Hetchy campaign, which opposed Proposition F, said the former group’s supporters are ready to rally against any future challenges to remove the dam.

“It would be irresponsible, if not catastrophic, to pursue the folly of draining a century-old lake, dismantling a functioning and incredibly environmentally sound water and power system, and further exacerbate the state’s water and climate-change challenges,” Johnston said.

Eliminating the Hetch Hetchy system during a dry year would be “unthinkable,” Johnston said. Any future efforts to restore the valley would likely be met with resistance from Bay Area residents and political leaders, he added.

“There really is no responsible alternative,” he said. “They all would result in the loss of clean power, the consumption of dirty power and the horrendous competition for new sources of water. Even if you are attracted to the fantasy, the reality is too awful to consider.”

Looking past the 100-year political war over the dam, the Raker Act’s centennial is also a reminder of early advocacy efforts that helped fuel the conservation movement.

John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club and was one of the biggest figures of the early conservation movement, fought vehemently against damming the valley before he died in 1914. 

Many have claimed Muir “died of a broken heart” over the lost battle.

“Our center sees the loss of Hetch Hetchy as a waterfall-studded wonderland as one reason to have society collaborate to protect natural gems all across our planet,” said John Buckley, executive director of the Twain Harte-based Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center.

The center doesn’t take a formal position on the Hetch Hetchy issue, Buckley said, but Muir’s fight over the dam has been a model for CSERC’s continued preservation advocacy.

“(CSERC) has tried to emulate John Muir in being a passionate voice for the remaining wild places and rivers that are still in healthy, pristine condition throughout this local region,” he said, “where the Hetch Hetchy struggle first began.”

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