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Energy crisis
Hetch Hetchy


Copyright 2008-10,
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site last updated: 6/26/2010

C a l i f o r n i a   P H O T O N

The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

View of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir generated by Google Earth.

The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir was created by daming Hetch Hetchy Valley in the northwest quadrant of Yosemite National Park, in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It provides electricity to 2.4 million people in the city of San Francisco, San Mateo County, Alameda County, and the San Joaquin Valley. The Reservoir and its water and rights are owned by the City of San Francisco, but the delivery of the power to San Francisco has been and is controlled by PG&E -- the source of decades-long dispute between advocates of public power and the utility.

History of the Reservoir

The City of San Francisco petitioned the US Department of the Interior, starting in 1902, to gain water rights to Hetch Hetchy valley, which lay inside of the federally-controlled Yosemite National Park. The effort stalled under the Schmitz administration, but was revived in 1908, when San Francisco Representative Julius Kahn introduced legislation to bring Hetch Hetchy water to the city. The legislation was opposed by environmentalist organizations including the Sierra Club led by the John Muir. 1  

The dispute was settled with the passage by the US Congress of the the Raker Act in 1913, which permitting the construction of the O'Shaughnessy Dam to flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley. 2  

By the time the dam was completed in 1923, San Francisco was still building its transmission infrastructure to deliver the electricity from Yosemite to the city. in 1925, with only the last few miles of the project incomplete, San Francisco contracted PG&E to deliver the power to the city at a huge markup 3   -- a violation of the explicit provisions of the Raker act, such as Section 6:

Sec. 6. That the grantee is prohibited from ever selling or letting to any corporation or individual, except a municipality or a municipal water district or irrigation district, the right to sell or sublet the water or the electric energy sold or given to it or him by the said grantee:

Provided, That the rights hereby granted shall not be sold, assigned, or transferred to any private person, corporation, or association, and in case of any attempt to so sell, assign, transfer, or convey, this grant shall revert to the Government of the United States.

Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior under President Franklin Roosevelt for 13 years, tried for years to enforce the Raker Act, but was unsuccessful. 5   In a speech to the Commonwealth Club in 1944 supporting a city bond issue to buy out PG&E, Ickes said:

The disgraceful history of the handling of Hetch Hetchy power should place a new verb in the lexicon of political chicanery: 'To Hetch Hetchy' means to confuse and confound the public by adroit acts and deceptive words in order to turn to private corporate profit a trust set up for the people. 6  

Today, control of Hetch-Hetchy-generated power remains in the hands of PG&E, whose well-financed campaigns have defeated numerous San Francisco ballot measures that would have transferred that power to the city.

San Francisco currently owns 167 miles of transmission lines that carry electicity most of the way from the reservoir to the city, but it relies on PG&E lines to bring the electricity the last 30 miles from Newark to the city. A 1987 contract governs that service. 7  


1. Notes on Hetch-Hetchy Valley,, [cached]
2. This is the Raker Bill,, [cached]
3. CHAPTER 8 The Power Controversy,, [cached]
4. Hetch Hetchy Reservoir Site,,
5. Harold L. Ickes,, [cached]
6. The best story in Guardian history,,
7. S.F. officials to take on PG&E,, 9/28/2008 [cached]