Musings on a Drowned Cathedral

“These temple-destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar. Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.” — John Muir, from The Yosemite (1912)

They built it anyway.

yosemite 5.2015 hetch hetchy morning reflection yosemite 5.2015 hetch hetchy dam

The photos and narratives do not do Hetch Hetchy justice.  To give the valley justice, one must visit, and follow the path beyond where one can see the other side of Kolana Rock from the dam.  The Hetch Hetchy is still a place of great beauty and stunning features, though these days it is difficult to imagine the valley without the inundation.

Hetch Hetchy Valley in the early 1900s. Image: Wikipedia Commons

Hetch Hetchy Valley in the early 1900s.
Image: Wikipedia Commons

Image: National Park Service

Image: National Park Service

Falls on Tuolumne River at the head of the Hetch Hetchy Valley.  Image: J. N. LeConte from the Sierra Club Archives.

Falls on Tuolumne River at the head of the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Image: J. N. LeConte from the Sierra Club Archives.

I understand the perceived need for the stored water given what had recently transpired in San Francisco.  However the problem was less about adequate water to fight the fires following the earthquake as it was a broken delivery system.  They could have created their lake farther downstream, outside the boundaries of the Yosemite National Park.  One can also appreciate the ease of engineering a dam in the location chosen, at a steep and narrow canyon of the Tuolumne River anchored in granite rather than the less coherent Mariposa Formation in a likely downstream location.

As a resident of San Francisco, I definitely benefit from the relatively certain and pure water provided by the Hetch Hetchy system.  This does not negate the lost benefit of having a “second Yosemite Valley” to visit and enjoy.  Perhaps a Hetch Hetchy Valley available for public recreation would have dispersed some of the upwards of 4,000,000 visitors who descend on Yosemite, particularly the Yosemite Valley annually.

I am also fairly sure the recent movement and calls to remove the dam and allow Hetch Hetchy to restore itself to a semblance of its former glory will fall on increasingly deaf ears as the drought California is experiencing continues and deepens.  Some segments of the population would like to inundate a few more valleys, and are actively blaming the environmental community for the “water crisis,” conveniently ignoring the fact over the past four years most of the state has received less than two years worth of precipitation.

The truth is, when a place such as Hetch Hetchy is lost, all of us lose something, even if only the knowledge we could visit and experience all such places have to offer us in opportunities for recreation and reflection.  The grieving for Hetch Hetchy has not stopped  though there are likely few left alive who could recall having visited prior to the creation of the lake.  When we lose a family member or friend, we are impacted to a greater extent than for someone we don’t know, though such deaths can touch us deeply, particularly if the individual had made some lasting contribution to society.  So it is no wonder the current generation of policy makers are loathe to return this part of Yosemite National Park to something a bit closer to its natural state.  They did not know the place as it was before.  And may not even know it as it is today.  Just as with people, it is difficult to grieve for a place one does not know.

This past week I visited the Hetch Hetchy Valley for the first time, taking a 10+ mile roundtrip hike to the bridge crossing Tiltill Creek.  And while what remains above the waterline is marvelous, it surely pales compared to what it was.  Still, visiting makes it easier to grieve for the potential of what I, or anyone else, could have experienced.

In so many ways words are inadequate, so let me share a few images of my excursion.

Looking upstream beyond Kolana Rock

Looking upstream beyond Kolana Rock

The valley of Rancheria Creek

The valley of Rancheria Creek

Wapama Falls rivals the waterfalls in Yosemite Valley for its grandeur and height.

Looking back west towards Wapama Falls

Looking back west towards Wapama Falls

Wapama Falls has a total drop of 1,080 vertical feet over three drops

Wapama Falls has a total drop of 1,080 vertical feet over three drops

The Hetch Hetchy is known for its profusion of wildflowers in the spring.

yosemite 5.2015 butterfly on lupine yosemite 5.2015 paintbrush yosemite 5.2015 purple flowers yosemite 5.2015 two lupines

yosemite 5.2015 yellow floers and seeps

This entry was posted in Environmental Issues, Hetch Hetchy, Yosemite. Bookmark the permalink.

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