Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

The Battle Over Hetch Hetchy: America’s Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism

Posted by nliakos on July 13, 2012

by Robert W. Righter (Oxford University Press 2005)

This is another one of those books that’s been on my to-read list for ages–since it was published, I suppose.

I was around twenty when I visited Yosemite National Park for the first time. At that time, I was unaware of the Hetch Hetchy controversy. The Hetch Hetchy Valley was said to be like a twin of the Yosemite Valley. It was also in the National Park…. but that was not sufficient to save it. Today, it is a reservoir. The beautiful valley was stripped of its vegetation; the Tuolumne River, which flowed through the valley between granite cliffs, was dammed, submerging Hetch Hetchy under a vast reservoir created to provide water for the city of San Francisco.

Every time I think of all that natural beauty under water, I want to weep. I think that if I were John Muir or one of the other defenders of Hetch Hetchy who had actually seen it, I would have wept. But Righter’s even-handed telling of the story from its beginnings around the turn of the 20th century right up to the present, with the formation of the Restore Hetch Hetchy movement, makes it clear that there really are no villains. There were those who wanted to keep Hetch Hetchy in its “natural” state for the sake of tourism, and there were those who felt “the greatest good for the greatest number” would be served by damming the river to create sources of both water and electric power for millions of people in the Bay Area. The irony is that the water and power could have been gotten in other ways–ways that would have been less expensive for the people who used them and which would have spared the beautiful valley in the National Park (but flooded other valleys outside it).

It was in the struggle to save Hetch Hetchy that America’s environmental movement cut its teeth and learned how to fight. The loss of Hetch Hetchy was followed by other victories by the Sierra Club and other newly created environmental groups.  Righter shows how the battle resonated throughout the 20th century and still resonates today.

The book is well-written but in places poorly edited (I spied a few dangling modifiers, and one of San Francisco’s many mayors was named either Rolph or Rolfe…. both spellings occur.), and the typeface was uncomfortably small, making it difficult to read if the light was not really bright. (Maybe I just need new glasses!)

The book makes me want to reread John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid.

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