The Fight For Northern California Water

What was at stake in that portion of Yosemite National Park amidst the central Sierra watershed in a place called Hetch Hetchy Valley to the north of Half Dome and El Capitan between 1890-1920?


Albert Bierstadt's landscape painting of Yosemite Valley, (1864) Oil on canvas.

Ideas that shaped this important controversy over protecting parks, land, and water in the West.

Antecedents & Advocates:

Catlin – conceived of the national park idea as a place for wild people and wild animals.

Emerson – what the civilization requires is nature as a refuge.

Bryant – the need for a great urban park in New York City (Manhattan island).

Thoreau – he proposed protection for acres of forests in every township.

Olmsted – proposed in 1862 the reservation of the entire Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Trees.

Bierstadt – in 1864, he painted a landscape depicting the floor of the valley.

Muir – wrote about the place as a temple of GodÕs creation with the command to steward the park.

The contest:

A fight to save the Mariposa, Big Trees, Tuolumne Meadows & the valley

City of San FranciscoÕs water needs

The Sierra Club – Franklin K. Lane's role as an educated attorney

Gifford Pinchot, chief forester, Biltmore restoration, conservation

biltmore forest
                            The Biltmore Estate forest restored by Pinchot in the 1880s from a North Carolina plantation.

            Forests as timber crops: sustained yield forestry = board feet lumber

            Water as acre feet for irrigation and reservoir capacity for electricity

            Fisheries as renewable sources of food, medicine, and cosmetics


Bierstadt's painting of Hetch Hetchy Valley

In the 1860s Albert Bierstadt's painting of Hetch Hetchy Valley captures the "historical memory" of what was flooded.

Three sides in the controversy

Pacific Gas and Electric Company, PG&E, private corporation; stocks & bonds

Public power movement – private monopoly of water and electricity is bad

John MuirÕs crusade for the sanctity of creation, submits to a higher law.

Sierra Nevada

What is truly at stake here?

            Absolutism – the belief in definable values that you do not compromise    

            Meliorist and zoning – the definable values can coexist with progress

            Federal lands and their uses – the public domain is a common property  

public lands California

The outcomes

1913 and the decision to flood Hetch Hetchy Valley to provide San Francisco City and County with water and power supplies.

Muir and Roosevelt in Yosemite Park

Theodore Roosevelt & John Muir in the park with Yosemite Falls in the background.

The schism in the movement to protect the environment fractures into:


                        Parks protection, [National Forests, Parks]

                        Wildlife refuge,s [National Wildlife Refuges]

                        Archaeological protection, [National Monuments]


                        Reclamation [Newlands Act & creation of the Bureau of Reclamation]



                        Comprehensive river management

                        Public power (electricity cooperatives)

Relief map of central California contrasted with the wall of the Sierra Nevada range.

Sierra NevadaSierra Nevada


Birth of ecology –as a science-- and the public planning movement (City Beautiful) as examples of the schismÕs step-children:

McGee, comprehensive watershed management as the foundation of conservation

MacKaye, scenic preservation of watershed as multi purposed land protection

Marshall, the protection of remote, inaccessible wild lands for wildlife

Leopold, the wisdom of biotic navigation

Williams, the Open Space of Democracy

Actually the upper falls, is pictured here. Yosemite Falls has a relief of 2,425 feet in height.

"Flows: approximately November through July, with peak flow in May. Yosemite Falls, one of the world's tallest, is actually made up of three separate falls: Upper Yosemite Fall (1,430 feet), the middle cascades (675 feet), and Lower Yosemite Fall (320 feet)."

United States National Park Service