Hetch Hetchy: Undoing a Great American Mistake

Envisioning the restoration of a natural wonder

“The environmental movement as we know it was forged in the fight against Hetch Hetchy Dam. No previous debate over the American landscape had so engaged and enraged the American public. The Sierra Club and other opponents helped stir this sentiment and their campaign to preserve Hetch Hetchy became the prototypical environmental campaign.”
—From Hetch Hetchy: Undoing a Great American Mistake

In the 1920’s the thirsty city of San Francisco reached deep into Yosemite National Park to build the O’Shaughnessy Dam on the Tuolumne River, diverting one-third of the river’s water and flooding the Hetch Hetchy Valley, said at the time to be as magnificent as Yosemite Valley itself. The water that flows through tunnels and pipelines into the households of San Francisco is steeped in the resulting heated debates, which began over a century ago and burn to this day.

Examining the stunning engineering feat that the dam represented to some when it was constructed, as well as the heartbreak of others, such as John Muir, over the loss of a valley as radiant as any in Yosemite National Park, award-winning nature writer Kenneth Brower’s Hetch Hetchy: Undoing a Great American Mistake is a tribute to the men and women whose lives were shaped by those waters, and the wild landscape that still exists beneath them.

Alongside A State of Change artist and historical ecologist Laura Cunningham’s pictorial reimagining of a drained Hetch Hetchy landscape over the course of two, ten, a hundred years, Brower envisages the species-by-species reclamation of the valley by its native flora and fauna as wildness flourishes again. Offering viable alternatives for restoration, Brower’s Hetch Hetchy is both an exploration of the pitched battle over an environmental tragedy and an inspiring reverie of a possible future.

Advance Praise

“The battle that John Muir led over damming Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite forged the fighting force of the Sierra Club. Hetch Hetchy would never be dammed if it was proposed today, so why is it considered impractical to suggest that we undo the damage?”

—Michael Brune, executive director, Sierra Club


“The modern environmental movement has its roots in the flooding of Hetch Hetchy Valley. Ken Brower’s inspirational text gives hope and a blueprint to all of us who wish to see free-flowing rivers again where dams have stilled their waters.”

—Richard J. Ingebretsen, M.D., Ph.D., founder, Glen Canyon Institute

About the Author

Kenneth David BrowerKenneth David Brower is the oldest son of the pioneering environmentalist David Brower. His first memories are of the Sierra Nevada and the wild country of the American West. His father drafted him into service as an editor at nineteen, and under that leadership he wrote or edited fourteen volumes in the Exhibit-Format Series of photography books produced by the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth. In his mid-twenties he departed his father’s shop to become a freelance writer, and his work has appeared in The Atlantic, Audubon, National Geographic, Canadian Geographic, The Paris Review, Reader’s Digest, Smithsonian, Sierra, Islands, and numerous other magazines. He is the author of the books The Starship and the Canoe, Wake of the Whale, A Song for Satawal, Realms of the Sea, The Winemaker’s Marsh, Freeing Keiko, and many more. He lives in Berkeley, California.