Orion Reads
a diary of books etc.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Battle Over Hetch Hetchy, The Bookman's Wake

i read these two a bit ago. Let's start with The Bookman's Wake by John Dunning. Dunning has a series of mystery/detective novels with a cute twist: the obligatory retired cop has left the nation's finest to open a bookstore and spends his time becoming embroiled in murder and mayhem all centered around [valuable] books ! Brilliant ! Obviously mystery readers love books, so there you go. If you're looking for some not-too-bad fluffy detective stuff, The Bookman's Wake (and i'm sure the other Dunning books) are just about perfect.

The Battle Over Hetch Hetchy: America's Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism was a great read for me. I visited Hetch Hetchy for the first time a couple years ago, and my visit has been retroactively improved quite a bit by this book. For those who don't know, Hetch Hetchy Valley lies within Yosemite National Park, just slightly north of Yosemite Valley itself. The valley was much beloved of the famous John Muir, and was apparently a second Yosemite in scenic value: think rolling meadows flanked by the soaring granite bones of the very earth itself. (purple prose mine) The valley was dammed in the 1920s to provide water to San Francisco, and is now flooded. As a result, San Fransisco has some of the purest tap water in the country, and also generates quite a lot of electricity as well. (Which is then sold to PG&E, who then sells it back to the city and the public) And really, San Francisco water is *good*. The only better tasting tap water i've ever had was in Iceland, so i'm at a loss to explain the ubiquity of Brita water filters in this town - this water is coming straight from the sierras ! Anyhow, on to points of historical interest:

One interesting thing i learned was that San Francisco politics about exactly on hundred years ago was notoriously corrupt, which helped sustain the monopoly of the then only water game in town, the Spring Valley Water Works. When a comparatively above-the-table mayor was elected (James Phelan), he and Spring Valley became enemies. Phelan was the major passion behind damming Hetch Hetchy, and Spring Valley was naturally against it, as it meant an end to their monopoly. Now the interesting part: enter John Muir and half the Sierra Club. I say half because that's about how many were opposed to the dam; the other half thought it was a great idea. So but now we find Muir and the conservationists on the same side of a battle as the corrupt Spring Valley Water Works. This association was manipulated to great end by the opponents of conservation.

Another interesting thing is that in the 20s, San Francisco put forth ballot measures several times to buy the electrical lines owned by PG&E, so that the city could directly distribute the power being generated by Hetch Hetchy. And several times, the people refused to vote for it. We were that close to having actual public power.

Third, in discussing the pros and cons of undamming the river (and almost exclusively the pros), Righter never once mentioned that there's now an established lake ecosystem in the valley which would be destroyed with the dam.

Altho the book is very much predisposed against Hetch Hetchy dam, my personal opinion on breaching it remains that it's a bad idea. Apparently SF can get all the water it needs from other sources, but that just seems like shifting the load. What's done is done, and the main advantage of breaching the dam would be to recover a beautiful valley. In the uncertain global climate conditions facing us, i favour stability and think it would be foolish to give up an established and excellent source of renewable power and water in exchange for yosemite II.

Oh yes, thanks very much to Michelle for seeing this book and thinking i might enjoy it !

Currently i'm reading: Two Anthologies of Science Fiction and For Whom the Bell Tolls. On deck are Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, and Martin Amis's latest, House of Meetings. I should mention that i await House of Meetings w/ breath bated. It's apparently a fictionalization of Amis's earlier non-fiction work about the horrors of the Stalinist USSR, which affected me greatly.