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Dam!: Water, Power, Politics, and Preservation


A vivid account of America’s first environmental cause célèbre, which illuminates our attitudes toward fundamental questions of growth, development, and our place in nature.

The building of the O’Shaughnessy Dam and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in the middle of Yosemite National Park–despite the availability of less expensive, less technically challenging, and less politically complicated possibilities–set off a defining controversy in American environmentalism. From the early 1900s ...

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A vivid account of America’s first environmental cause célèbre, which illuminates our attitudes toward fundamental questions of growth, development, and our place in nature.

The building of the O’Shaughnessy Dam and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in the middle of Yosemite National Park–despite the availability of less expensive, less technically challenging, and less politically complicated possibilities–set off a defining controversy in American environmentalism. From the early 1900s to 1913 Americans argued about proposals to dam the Tuolumne River and transform the extraordinary Hetch Hetchy Valley into a giant source of water and hydroelectric power for the San Francisco Bay Area. It is a story of intrigue replete with political scandals and suspect tactics played out in the corridors of Congress, in San Francisco’s City Hall and its corporate boardrooms, and in the national media. The colorful cast of characters includes Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and John Muir, as well as a host of political bosses, West Coast boosters, East Coast patricians and publishers, big-business interests, newly formed environmental groups, and the American public.

Simpson also takes us through the building of the enormous dam and the extensive tunnels and aqueducts that carry water to the Bay Area, and the even more controversial hydroelectric project that still fails to deliver the “public” power that Congress mandated and about which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled. He recounts conversations with an array of people currently involved in the ongoing controversy over whether to manage, refurbish, repair, and enlarge the system, or to tear down the dam and restore the valley to its prior splendor. Simpson concludes with a reflection on what all of this reveals about American attitudes toward growth, development, and environmental stewardship.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A gripping account, studded with unforgettable characters, of how a classic national park was compromised in the clash between competing public goals and John Muir and Gifford Pinchot. Simpson puts the story in a large context and brings it up to date. Full of new information about workable alternatives. Thoroughly worthwhile.”
–Michael McCloskey, Executive Director, Sierra Club, 1969-85

“Professor Simpson vividly describes the classic American confrontation–wilderness versus civilization–in terms that are both scholarly and emotional. His book is all the more important in light of the current debate over the removal of the dam at Hetch Hetchy and the restoration of the Yosemite-like valley under its reservoir.”
–Dr. Roderick Frazier Nash, author of Wilderness and the American Mind

Publishers Weekly
An ardent preservationist, Simpson (Visions of Paradise: Glimpses of Our Landscape's Legacy) argues for the restoration of Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley. Although the valley is in a national park, in 1913 Congress passed the Raker Act, authorizing the construction of a dam and reservoir on the Tuolumne River, flooding the Hetch Hetchy. The dam was built, despite opposition by John Muir and other environmentalists, to deliver water, and later electricity, to San Francisco, but Simpson says that other, less destructive options were available. In addition to relating this history, Simpson, a professor of landscape architecture and natural resources at Ohio State, examines how the Raker Act has been consistently undermined. Through the machinations of corrupt politicians, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, a private corporation, in violation of the Raker Act's call for a public power authority, has enjoyed a virtual monopoly on providing electrical power to San Francisco that is costly to consumers. Simpson's research is exemplary, and he deftly explores this case study of the nexus of politics, business and the environment. And he's lyrical when recounting his trips to Yosemite and describing the transformative beauty of the wilderness area. (July 12) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A tale of two valleys-and two quite different visions of what to do with them. The Yosemite Valley, in the Sierra Nevada of California, "once had a sister-the Hetch Hetchy Valley-just twenty-five miles to the north," writes Simpson (Landscape Architecture/Ohio State Univ.; Visions of Paradise, 1999). The past tense is important to note, for in the 1920s, following half a century of argument and exploration, the Tuolumne River in Hetch Hetchy was dammed to provide water and power for San Francisco, 170 miles distant. The two major camps were personified by conservationist John Muir and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted on one hand and forestry expert Gifford Pinchot on the other; Muir and Olmsted pressed for protection of the entire Tuolumne watershed, whereas Pinchot held that the damage caused "by substituting a lake for the present swampy floor of the [Hetch Hetchy] valley . . . is altogether unimportant compared with the benefits to be derived from its use as a reservoir." The political ascendancy of the railroading, ranching and development interests helped seal Hetch Hetchy's fate, as did Pinchot's own rise to head the U.S. Forest Service. The debate, Simpson observes, helped solidify stereotypes that persist today, including the characterization of conservationism as the brainchild of "the liberal, intellectual, and wealthy elite of the East Coast"; it also taught the conservationists to avoid grappling with local interests by taking environmental questions to a national audience, which would later serve Muir's Sierra Club very well. Simpson does a good job of charting the complex political maneuvering that accompanied both the creation of Yosemite National Park and thedamming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a matter that eventually came before the national legislature. He closes by endorsing a plan to remove the dam and restore the valley to its former state, asking, pointedly, "Would Congress listen to public opinion this time, or would economic interests and politics again dictate the outcome?"Careful account of environmental controversy, a companion to Robert W. Righter's recent Battle Over Hetch Hetchy.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375422317
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/12/2005
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 1,420,029
  • Product dimensions: 6.29 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.22 (d)

Meet the Author

John Warfield Simpson is Professor of Landscape Architecture and Natural Resources at Ohio State University. He is the author of Visions of Paradise: Glimpses of Our Landscape’s Legacy and Yearning for the Land: A Search for the Importance of Place, and of many articles. He lives in Upper Arlington, Ohio, with his wife and children.
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Table of Contents

Pt. 1 The origins of Yosemite National Park
1 The struggle for the valley 4
2 Olmsted, Muir, and the state reserve 27
3 Pinchot, the park, and the conservation movement 48
4 Thodore Roosevelt; the park's revision 76
Pt. 2 The Hetch Hetchy controversy, past and present
5 Spring Valley and the boomtown politics of water 98
6 James Duval Phelan and the imperial dream 111
7 The private debate over Hetch Hetchy 130
8 A national cause celebre 148
9 The political outcome 162
10 Competing claims for water 182
11 Mismanaging the dream 202
12 Constructing the engineering marvel 222
13 The Raker Act's ignored mandate 236
14 PG&E and the politics of public power 251
15 Restoring the promise 275
16 Old issues; a new dream 291
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