For the Thirst of a City

Picture: Sunset light on the peaks above Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Yosemite National Park, California

One of my photographer friends, Guy Tal, posted on his blog, er… web journal, yesterday that he was perhaps one of the last people to ride the photographic coat tails of Ken Burns’ recent PBS documentary film series on the National Parks.

So as to not be the only photographer left who hasn’t made a post on the subject, here’s mine:

I thought the film was great. But as I watched it, one scene stuck out for me more than most others, in part because of my current book project on California’s history. They presented an archival photo of Hetch Hetchy Valley, that was widely considered to be the ‘little sister’ of Yosemite Valley. Last week I was at Hetch Hetchy to photography the reservoir for my book. I also hope to use the same archival shot to show what now lies submerged beneath the water.

As I walked across the dam, that archival image was etched into my brain. It was all I could do to look out over this body of water, and think to myself that what laid before me was done to feed the thirst of a city, San Francisco. It was that thirst, the need for water by a rapidly growing population, that brought men to dam and flood this beautiful haven.

There continues to be a strong environmental push to undam the lake and restore Hetch Hetchy Valley. It’s a nice thought, but I’m afraid I just don’t see it happening anytime soon. The cries of a thirst-ravaged city makes for a powerful political lobby Besides, where else would San Francisco get all of it’s water from? It’s too bad the technology for desalination of ocean water doesn’t exist yet. Oh wait, it does. Must be dollars and NIMBY-ism that keeps Hetch Hetch a flooded shell of it’s former, and natural beauty.

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6 Comments on “For the Thirst of a City”

  1. Robin Black Says:

    I think all of us who carry a camera and have visited Hetch Hetchy must’ve had the same impulse after watching the series last week. I, too, devoted a post (on my modest little blog) to some pics I took in July on an impromptu visit; I’d previously not posted them because they were taken mid-day and are decidedly mediocre. The place made me deeply sad when we visited, and I began reading everything I could on the push to restore the valley–perhaps I’m too much of an optimist; multiple studies have shown it can be restored without adversely affecting the city’s water supply, so I hope someday–hopefully sooner than later–we can find the money to do so, and without all of the hysteria that led to the dam’s creation in the first place. Very nice pic, btw–love the weathered wood in the foreground.

  2. G Dan Mitchell Says:

    Two things…

    1. I may have to take you up on the challenge and eventually be yet another photographer to ride on the coattails of the Ken Burns documentary. Turns out I’ve been so busy (traveling back and forth to the Sierra, dealing with the photographic aftermath, and handling my teaching work) that I didn’t watch one episode – not even a tiny bit of an episode! I see that I can buy it on iTunes…

    2. Your point about quenching the thirst of a city is, of course, not only a historical topic. Right this very moment the governor of California is threatening to veto hundreds of bills unrelated to water if the legislature doesn’t ram through his new water plan that… builds tons of new dams and perhaps even construct the long-resisted peripheral canal. In other words, again we’re headed down this same path.

    It occurs to me that more widely speaking about the terrible, short-sighted mistake that congress permitted in Hetch Hetchy and the awful loss of that “other valley” by many generations of Americans… all for water that SF could get from other sources (dams lower in the foothills, etc.) is perhaps more important now than it has been in a long time.

    Take care,


  3. Richard Wong Says:

    I am sad that an entire generation of people have passed in this country and never got an opportunity to see an un-dammed Hetch Hetchy and perhaps more to come.

    It was a great series. I want to buy the DVD.

  4. Peter T. Says:

    Just an FYI, the solution of undamming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley isn’t insurmountable because San Francisco and other cities that depend on Hetch Hetchy water could still get the same water if they increased the height of the Don Pedro Reservoir Dam by less than 30 feet. That would result in the additional flooding of about a mile of the Tuolumne River downstream near Moccasin, but will restore eight miles of the river in and around Hetch Hetchy Valley. Of course this would cost a good sum of money, but it’s definitely technically doable.

  5. Jeff Lynch Says:


    In my previous life as an engineer I worked on ROPWPU (reverse osmosis pressure water purification units) and the technology does exist and is in use today in the Middle East. The cost per liter of water is still very high which is why you never see this used here.

    Good luck with your book project!


  6. Carl D Says:

    Hey Gary,

    I say people should drink less and give us back the Hetch.

    Riding on the photographic-webblog-coattails of Guy Tal, more like it. :0



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