“Hetch Hetchy” – the Sierra Miwok term that describes an edible grass located in Yosemite National Park. Also, the name of a valley, that in 1923, was dammed and flooded to provide water to the city of San Francisco. The 1906 preposition to dam Hetch Hetchy caused a major, nationwide debate between preservationists, led by Gifford Pinchot, and conservationists, led by John Muir, at the time. Now, almost 100 years later, Hetch Hetchy and the O’Shaughnessy Dam is in the news again. However, this time it’s a debate about “paying rent”.
Each year the city of San Francisco pays a scant $30,000 to the federal government for use of the 8 miles of Hetch Hetchy Valley that was dammed. According to John Upton’s article in the New York Times, $30,000 is about equal to a years rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. Representative Devin Nunes from California views this fee as unfair and as a subsidy for water and electric while the farmers in his area of the state suffer from diminished water supply. Rep. Nunes has now proposed an increase in the amount that the city of San Francisco pays the federal government for using the water from Hetch Hetchy Valley. And it is not a small increase, he is proposing that San Franscisco be required to pay $34 million dollars a year.
The idea to dam Hetch Hetchy became an urgent issues after the 1906 fires in San Francisco. The Raker Act, passed in 1913, permitted the damming of the valley and set the current $30,000 fee. The passing of the Raker Act was a hard blow to preservationists who felt that Hetch Hetchy Valley was more valuable as a wilderness area especially when San Francisco had alternative sources of water. Conservationists felt that, although the valley did have value as a wilderness area, the needs of the residents of San Franscico outweighed the desire to keep Hetch Hetchy undeveloped. Even today, there are still efforts to gather support for removing the dam and restoring Hetch Hetchy to a natural area. But in the meantime, Hetch Hetchy will remain the main source of water and cheap power for the Bay Area.
The fee increase proposed by Representatives Nunes is opposed strongly by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission who operates the Hetch Hetchy Reservior. Fee increases were also proposed in 1995 and 2005, but both were unsuccessful due to opposition from democrats in the Bay Area. Any fee increase would eventually trickle down to the bills of local residents and even a thousandfold increase in rent for Hetch Hetchy Valley would not do much to help the current national debt. However, $30,000 a year seems like an exorbitantly low amount to pay for the use of 8 miles of land in National Park.