Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park – Far More Than a Political Controversy

Groveland and the surrounding area has had three distinct lives. First the Gold Rush brought many people to the area, some of whom stayed on after the ore, and the lure of ore, was gone. Next came the building of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, providing the drinking water for all of San Francisco and many surrounding communities, including Groveland. This watershed, dam, reservoir and water transport aqueduct to the Bay Area lay claim to the engineering marvel label. Third was the building of the local planned community of Pine Mountain Lake, another great destination.

Hetch Hetchy is located at the northwestern corner of Yosemite National Park and is a part of Yosemite. Although by road the two areas of the park are physically separated from each other, your entry fee/pass for Yosemite Valley is also good for access to Hetch Hetchy. If you are visiting the area for several days be sure to save that receipt stub! Two of the tallest waterfalls in North America are at Hetch Hetchy!

There are different explanations for the name of the valley. The name may originate from the Miwok Indian word hatchatchie, having to do with a type of edible grass that grew in the valley which was harvested for food. Or it might come from an Indian word hetchy, meaning tree. There is a tale of two yellow pine trees that once grew at the end of the valley which led to the name, hetchy, invoking two trees.

The O’Shaughnessy dam was built to provide a water supply for San Francisco, raising the water level some 300 feet above the riverbed and creating a reservoir about 8 miles long holding 117 billion gallons of water for millions of San Francisco area residents. The water travels from the Sierra Nevada to the San Francisco peninsula completely based on gravity. There are no power pumps involved in transporting the water, however there are two hydro electric plants along the way that produce energy from the water-flow.

In 1912, John R. Freeman published a preliminary design for the Hetch Hetchy system, the Freeman Plan, which included the gravity concept, a major step towards the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. The project required an act of Congress and construction began in 1914, following the Raker Act, which granted San Francisco rights-of-way and public lands use for the Hetch Hetchy and other public works projects. The dam is named for Michael Maurice O’Shaughnessy, who arrived in San Francisco in 1885, having sailed around the Horn from Ireland with a Bachelor of Engineering degree from the Royal University of Dublin. O’Shaughnessy took over the job of City Engineer for San Francisco in 1912, and was The Boss of the Hetch Hetchy project. The first phase of the dam and reservoir project was completed in 1923, and a second phase raising the height of the dam was finished in 1938.

There has always been controversy about the Hetch Hetchy Valley regarding O’Shaughnessy Dam and the Reservoir from back when it was first being planned to today. Should it have ever been built? Should it be removed now to restore the Hetch Hetchy valley? We won’t touch on those topics here, there are plenty of sources of opinion and debate out there for you to review, we just want to share information about this locale. So, with that in mind, lets step away from the reservoir and its water for a minute, and walk off into the land itself.

There are many opportunities to hike in the area surrounding Hetch Hetchy reservoir, and while there is no swimming in the reservoir to maintain its pristine quality for drinking water, fishing is allowed in season. There are streams and rivers nearby for swimming, and there is lots of natural beauty to enjoy. In addition to the Ranger Station at Hetch Hetchy, there are informative displays about the dam & reservoir and a parking and picnic area by the dam (dogs are allowed ONLY in this area).

Sources of information on hiking in the Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite region abound, but here are a few or our personal favotire hikes in the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir area.

Wapama Falls: Begin at the reservoir, across the dam and through the tunnel, for this 5 mile round trip, moderate up and down elevation change 300 feet, trail. Hikers enjoy moisture from the falls that mists the trail in spring, but be sure to carry water as it is hot in summer, enjoy views of Wapama and Tueeulala Falls.O’Shaughnessy Dam to the Tuolumne River – Begin at the reservoir near side of the dam, 2 miles round trip elevation change 250 feet. Lookout Point – From the ranger station at the Hetch Hetchy park entrance, this hike is 2 to 3 miles round trip, elevation change 500 feet, offers a great view.

Rancheria Falls: These falls are 4.2 miles past Wapama falls on the same trail, it is a very strenuous day hike at 13+ miles, a great overnight backpacking trip, or do the 29 mile multi day loop hike to Rancheria and Laurel & Vernon Lakes.

Poopenaut Valley: On the way in to or out of Hetch Hetchy, about 4 miles past the ranger station/park entrance, this 3 mile round trip hike is very strenuous due to the steepness of the trail, elevation change is 1,250 feet, but the reward is a stretch of the Tuolumne River seldom visited by others.

Carlon Falls – This 3.6 mile round trip hike, elevation change 200 feet, takes you from Evergreen Road to Carlon falls where you can swim and picnic.

There are many more trails at Hetch Hetchy for the hiker & backpacker than those listed here, such as Smith Peak which is the highest pint in the area, the Tiltill Valley northeast of Rancheria Falls on the way to Lake Vernon. See the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne river from the canyon rim near White Wolf Campground on the Tioga Road, connect with the Pacific Crest Trail for longer backpacking adventures.

Always BEWARE of Rattlesnakes and Poison Oak when hiking Hetch Hetchy, be sure to get a Wilderness Permit for overnight backpacking treks.

Besides the natural aspects of Hetch Hetchy, there is a great deal of lore surrounding the installation of the dam and the Hetch Hetchy railroad that had to be built to bring materials and supplies up the hill. Wikipedia has a brilliant section on this with a loads of detail, though somewhat dry in its presentation.

Lynn Upthagrove, along with her husband Victor, own the Hotel Charlotte, in Groveland, on the way to Yosemite. http://www.HotelCharlotte.com.
Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/expert/Lynn_Upthagrove/27457
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    1. Les Marsden

      Absolutely agreed, Yosemite Lover. The Raker Act was one of the worst acts of ANY Congress – and that’s saying a lot. It was the one and only time a municipality was given control and possession of lands that belong to ALL Americans – OUR National Park land, within a national park – and in fact that action has never been repeated anywhere else. In fact, it’s held up as an example of something which should NOT be done. There are a great many alternate possibilities for providing water to San Francisco and other water-served areas downstream of the park. Unfortunately, the alliance between SF and PG&E for the valuable HYDRO-generated power which puts a minor fortune into the tills of San Francisco somehow overrides doing what is RIGHT: tearing down O’Shaughnessy and restoring the valley which John Muir described as Yosemite Valley’s twin – so that it can be enjoyed by ALL Americans again – and not merely those who continue to hypocritically hide behind this terrible blemish upon a national park while touting their environmentalism. A TRUE environmentalist realizes the beauty which man destroyed when that dam was erected – and all those in SF who continue to smugly vote against initiatives which would undo the damage of a century while thinking they’re lovers of nature: are NOT.