Friday, March 17, 2017

Hetchy Hetchy classroom discussion

We had a very interesting discussion about the Hetch Hetchy dam controversy in my HIS 207 American Environmental History class last night at FRCC. Each student had a two page excerpt of a primary source document surrounding the public debate, including comments by the Marsdon Manson, James R. Garfield, John Raker, William Colby, John Muir, and several magazine editorials that favored or opposed the dam. Three main points of consensus emerged among the students by the end of the class.

1. They responded well to the dam proponents who generally supported their arguments with facts, especially dollar estimates of costs and benefits. While they liked John Muir’s salty attack on the dam proponents, they generally dismissed his writing as emotional and lacking the same objectivity of the proponents. The unique natural beauty argument did not hold sway.

2. As was clear from our National Park Service Hetch Hetchy timeline there was a direct connection between the dam and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Two months before the earthquake, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to abandon the pursuit of Hetch Hetchy. The devastating earthquake and its fires gave the project new life. Students found this both interesting, because they were unaware of the connection before, and compelling, because it provided a sound claim in their view that the city needed an accessible water supply quickly. They were a little more than chagrinned to see at the end of the time line that it took 20 years to get the water flowing to San Francisco!

3.They definitely sensed some elitism in the arguments of dam opponents. Protecting a valley that relatively few would see did not compare favorably to the benefit gained by the entire city, in their opinion.

I was a little surprised how much the class seemed to tilt in favor of the advocates of the dam.
Granted, this was hardly a deep dive into the event. Nor did I supply any photographs that might have won them over. In most books that I have read, and with most other historians with whom I have discussed the Hetch-Hetchy controversy, it is self-evident that Muir was on the right side, so I was a little taken aback. The lesson for me is to not count out the ghost of Gifford Pinchot!