By Paul Rauber
San Francisco, riding high on the tech boom, is one of the most expensive places in the country to live. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $3,285, and if you want to buy a house you'd better be prepared to pay with cash.
But! If you want to rent this beautiful valley in Yosemite National Park and then drown it, it will only set you back $30,000 a year. That's how much San Francisco pays for the privilege of making its macchiatos with pristine Sierra water from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, courtesy of the Raker Act, the 1913 law that authorized San Francisco to dam the Tuolomne River and flood the valley for its water supply. Opposing that sacrilege was Sierra Club founder John Muir's last great fight. "Dam Hetch Hetchy!" he thundered. "As well dam for water tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man."
Since then there have been periodic proposals to return the flooded valley to its previous status of what Muir called "a wonderfully exact counterpart" of Yosemite Valley -- most notably, in 1987 by Ronald Reagan's Interior Secretary Donald Hodel. Despite the widespread view that the Interior Secretary was simply trolling liberal San Franciscans, the Sierra Club Board of Directors reaffirmed its "historic and fundamental opposition to the damming of the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park," and called upon "all interests to take an open minded, long view of this issue, and to study and assess alternatives to meeting their needs and concerns through alternative sources of water, power and revenues." George W. Bush similarly goosed San Franciscans in 2004 when it proposed that the rent the city pays for the valley be raised from $30,000 to $8 million per annum.
Today the flame is being kept alive by Restore Hetch Hetchy, which points out that San Francisco pays the equivalent of $20 an acre for the valley. The organization is now challenging its supporters to outbid San Francisco; you can do so here for the price of a couple of Hetch Hetchy macchiatos.
Hetch Hetchy Valley by Albert Bierstadt