Lyell Canyon forms a deep groove in Yosemite’s eastern stretches, with steep walls extending two thousand feet upward to Kuna Crest on the east, and Amelia Earhart Peak on the west. It winds southward from Tuolumne Meadows, a high base camp for summer recreation in Yosemite, and ends in cirques below Yosemite’s highest peaks in the Lyell Range. At the head of the canyon, the skyscraping granite monoliths of Mts. Lyell, Rodgers, Simmons, and Maclure draw great quantities of snow from winter storms every year, forming permanent snowfields and glaciers which slowly melt all summer and drip downwards to form the quiet beginning of the Tuolumne River.
Some of this river water travels into lakes and through valleys, eventually connecting with the San Joaquin river and Pacific Ocean. But some of it takes a different journey, traveling through a two-hundred-mile-long network of sluices, turbines, pumping stations, tunnels and ornate temples which form one of the most impressive hydroengineering projects in existence: the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System. The project provides drinking water for 2.5 million Californians, and around a gigawatt of hydroelectric power for use throughout California.
Some experts say as high as 1.21
The trek I embarked on would take us for several miles along this placid, meandering stream on our way to the latest highpoint in our ongoing 58-part series: Parsons Peak Ridge, in this installment of Your California: Mariposa County.
Population: 18,251 (almost 2 Sold-Out Haas Pavilions)
Major Towns: No.
Highpoint: Parsons Peak Ridge, elevation 12,153 ft
Location (Berkeley terms): South of Tahoe
Major Landmarks: Yosemite National Park, California State Mining and Mineral Museum
University of California Affiliations: None officially, but I suspect the fourteen million Berkeley
students who climb Half Dome in any given year as their only trip outdoors have to count for something.
The weekend, for me at least, began in terror. Having slept out in the open the night before, sans tents for quick camp setup, I was especially aware of the potential presence of bears in the Tuolumne Meadows campground. For whatever reason, this seeped into my subconscious as I slept. It was still dark when my friend’s watch alarm went off at 4:00 AM. I was right in the middle of a dream when I became aware of something prodding my shoulder. In my half addled, half dream state, on the ground, in the dark, I thought it was a bear and screamed at the top of my lungs, which woke myself and most of the campground up. Turns out it was my friend, waking me up. Off to a good start. We packed up camp and headed south out of the campground, into the backcountry.
No dogs. No bikes. Dogs on bikes OK.
Surrounded by cold Pacific water on three sides, San Francisco is blessed with a particularly mild climate. Fog all summer and rain in the winter are usually the only weather items of note. But the rainfall does not amount to much, and as San Francisco is at the end of a long peninsula on sandy soil, the city lacks access to a large, dependable water supply. In the early days of the gold rush, the lack of a steady water supply and rapidly growing population meant water was precious; hotels charged exorbitant prices for drinking water, and street peddlers sold water at up to $1 in gold, per bucket, a small fortune at the time. Washing was rare, and bathing was practically nonexistent. In 1851, the Mountain Lake Water Company was formed to tunnel in water to downtown from puny Mountain Lake in the Presidio, and the Sausalito Water and Steam Tug Company was formed to import water from Marin via barge. San Francisco burned down six times between 1850-1852.
"Darling, I'm parched. Set sail."
It was just after 4AM, and the smell of doused campfire permeated the close air. I’ll admit, while sometimes I have to, I do not particularly enjoy hiking at night. It’s too dark to appreciate the scenery, and it’s difficult to ascertain one’s bearings in the landscape. The headlamp light can be scattered and every shadow and twitch of the brush puts one on edge. Any animal life will appear as two glowing eyes slowly approaching in the darkness and it’s hard to shake the voice in the back of your head saying "Probably squirrel. Potentially Cthulu." But at the same time, without any distractions and a temperature hovering in the 40s at 9000-foot elevation, precious little distracted us from the business of moving directly towards our destination. Midsummer can bring thunderstorms to the high Sierra which threaten mostly in the late afternoon; therefore it’s ideal to gain the summit at the latest by 1pm. It was primarily this reason, the 12 mile one-way distance, and the three thousand foot climb which caused us to leave so early.
Thank god for carpool lanes.
In 1858, after ten years of disjointed supply, outrageous demand and everyone’s eyebrows singed clean off, the city of San Francisco signed an exclusive contract with the Spring Valley Water Company to provide the city with water from the Alameda Creek Watershed and other east bay sources, via Niles Canyon and a series of Peninsula reservoirs, thus beginning a long and contentious utility relationship. While certainly conditions were better than the previous decade, the supply and price of water always fluctuated greatly, to the chagrin of city managers. In 1872, the first rumblings of an idea to tap the snows of the Sierra via a huge siphon project emerged, but for many years the idea would remain beyond the scope of the region. In 1873, the city of SF tried to buy out the SVWC but was turned down by voters on grounds of cost. The legacy of the SVWC is marked with a unique landmark, however: a classically styled temple off of I-680 near the unincorporated community of Sunol, marking the spot where the supplies from Alameda Creek, Pleasanton, and Arroyo de la Laguna united before traveling through Niles Canyon to the rest of the Bay. In 1910, this system provided up to 6 million gallons of water per day to San Francisco. It would be dwarfed by what was to come.
Back near the future supply of San Francisco’s water, dawn broke slowly through the forested canyon as the trail, mostly level, ducked around low hills on its way towards the Tuolumne. After about a mile or two, we joined up with the river and began the long sandy march towards the Ireland Lake cutoff. No wind blew, and a low mist hung over the stream.
Mist forms when the dewpoint is lower than the relative humidity in the atmosphere. Or, when there are souls.
The city of San Francisco grew immensely between 1858 and the turn of the century. However, by that time the city charter had grown hopelessly out of date, granting far too much leverage to "boss rule" among the corporate leaders of the city and state. Graft and corruption were rampant, and railroad companies held immense power. It was no coincidence that Proposition 7, which started the California direct-democracy system with regard to ballot initiatives, was passed soon after, in 1911. Perhaps most indicative of the levels of corruption steeped in the state, Stanford University was founded in 1896.
Fifty miles north of Graft U, a reform-minded journalist by the name of Franklin Lane, who studied journalism at (and was awarded an honorary degree from) the University of California and Hastings Law School, was one of several tasked with writing a new charter for the city in 1898. Previously, Lane cut his teeth writing for several anti-corruption publications in the
Bearded Gilded Era, and was a constant champion against graft. The Reform Charter of 1898 was mainly focused on consolidating urban power into a "strong mayor" system, eliminating bureaucracy in order to battle corruption, but it also contained the provision that the city must secure its own water supply. The idea of damming Hetch-Hetchy Valley in the Sierras and forming a long, gravity-driven siphon across the central valley gained much more impetus with the passage of this charter.
Starting in 1890, and throughout his five year mayorship from 1897-1902, Mayor James Phelan battled tooth and nail with the Department of the Interior, seeking approval for construction of a dam within Yosemite National Park. After several years of legislative back-and-forth, approval was finally gained in 1913 during the Wilson administration, which oversaw the passage of the Raker Act, granting full water rights of the Tuolumne River to the City of San Francisco. Wilson’s Secretary of the Interior? None other than Franklin K. Lane.
Statute 4, Provision III, Article 1.2: No, you may not have a drink.
We marched upward through the brown grass toward Ireland Lake. It is a spartan, round body of water, with little surrounding vegetation, just below Amelia Earhart Peak. Parsons Peak Ridge rose directly to the south. It seemed almost comical that, a hundred years ago, men in stuffy suits argued over who "owns" the water we were now circumventing. Laws, paper, pens, and arguments seemed a world away. Some Ptarmigans were the closest thing to slapfighting politicians we heard all day, and they did their best job in wigging out once they realized their camouflage wasn’t as good as they thought.
Hey buddy, wanna buy a P?
It took 31 years for the project to be completed. In addition to creating Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, an auxiliary dam on Lake Eleanor was built first to provide electricity for the construction of the main dam. A 150-mile long pipe aqueduct was constructed, as well as power stations at Moccasin, tunnels near Oakdale, and pipelines both spanning the bay and circumventing it to the south. The first water did not reach the bay area until 1934. Pulgas Water Temple was built and dedicated to the completion of the massive project.
"Up yours, Sunol"
We, however, were climbing the final slopes to the summit and CoHP, and reached the top around 11AM. The route was class 1 all the way, no scrambling necessary. The talus was monotonous, but views opened up to the Lyell group to the south and all the way to the valley to the west; Half Dome could be identified clearly in the distance. High clouds had gathered but did not threaten rain, only wind. Unfortunately I could not find the register, so the record of my having been there is lost. After half an hour and lunch, we started the long walk home.
Looking back, I figured I had spent a good amount of energy required to move myself to the top of Parson’s Peak Ridge. Hauling my fat 165 pounds of mostly water 24 miles and up and down three thousand feet took tremendous sweat and exertion over a total of 12 hours on my part. In the 60s, Cherry Lake Dam, Lloyd Lake Reservoir, and additional powerhouses were created along the line to provide additional electricity generation and water storage to the Hetch-Hetchy system. An ongoing project to seismically upgrade the entire system is still currently in place. In any case, the stats are astounding: 260 million gallons per day, 280 miles of pipelines, 60 miles of tunnels, 11 reservoirs, 5 pumping stations, two water treatment plants, and 1600 gigawatt-hours per year generated in renewable electricity, dwarfing my pathetic excuse for what I called energy expenditure.
Now it needs three treatment plants
Even though an average modern computer takes significantly more thought and precision engineering than many large-scale infrastructure projects of yore, to me, I will never have anything but awe for these large-scale works. To move water over 150 miles in manmade structures by gravity alone from a far-off mountain to a tap that I might drink out of, and have clean, safe drinking water for decades, going on a century is nothing short of astonishing. I applaud our early leaders who had the vision and gumption to make such a thing happen and highlight the best a government can produce. I hope, in the future, similar stories may emerge from our brief frame in history.
Go California, and Go Bears.
^genuinely really cool…worth a look
Lane, Franklin (1922), Lane, Anne; Wall, Louise, eds., The Letters of Franklin K. Lane, Houghton Mifflin