The Rim Fire, Tuolumne River Watershed and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

In Water Supply Security, What River Are You Made Of? by Elizabeth Dougherty

The Rim Fire, Tuolumne River Watershed and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir: Connect the Fire Progression Dots

Note: Images from over the days since the fire began are available on Facebook and Twitter.  All photographs in this blog, other than the two public images of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir are the property of Elizabeth Dougherty

The Rim Fire continues its burn through the Tuolumne River Watershed in the Sierra Nevada. The river is the centerpiece of the health of the watershed which sustains a large portion of the Stanislaus National Forest. As a small part of it’s function, the Tuolumne River Watershed provides water to Lake Eleanor, Cherry Lake and the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir collected behind the O’Shaughnessy Dam in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. The rights to these collected waters running through the wild and scenic portion of the river are owned by SFPUC, two irrigation districts and the people of California. The SFPUC diverts roughly 15% of the river flow to provide 85% of their total water supply for San Francisco and many areas of Silicon Valley (customers to SFPUC) and even to Groveland, the closest town to where the fire began, also SFPUC customers since the dam was built viathe Groveland Community Services District.


Ferretti Road near Tuolumne Trails, Tuesday August 20th.   Shot during evacuation.


DC 10 dropping fire retardant below Paper Cabin Hill, Monday 26, 2013


Backburning Paper Cabin Hill, August 27, 2013

The supression of the fire in this area (still not at 100% contained) counts for a large chunk of the current percentage of containment

It is an important moment to connect the SF water users to their actual water source, and encourage them to reduce water and energy use for the benefit of the watershed, which will be in a state of shock for many months to come. So let me state very clearly, San Franciscans, your water comes from the Tuolumne River Watershed, not a mistakenly referred to Hetch Hetchy Watershed.  Focusing solely on the watershed’s relationship only to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir area will lead you to missing the bigger picture of what a watershed is and how it functions, specifically in the case of a large fire such as the Rim Fire now underway in the Tuolumne River Watershed.  Each and every one of you that drink primarily Tuolumne River water each day through the SFPUC water supply system are actually made 75% or more of the Tuolumne River.  Take a moment to say, Wow!

What is Hetch Hetchy?

Hetch Hetchy is the name of a valley, a reservoir and a water collection and transfer system in California. The valley’s name could be derived from the Miwok word hatchhatchie, which means “edible grasses” or “magpie”. The glacial Hetch Hetchy Valley lies in the northwestern part of Yosemite National Park and is drained by the Tuolumne River. Roughly 15% of the river’s water is diverted for use by SFPUC customers. For thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans in the 1850s, the valley was inhabited by Native Americans who practiced subsistence hunting-gathering. During the late 19th century, the valley was renowned for its natural beauty – often compared to that of Yosemite  – but also targeted for the development of water supply for irrigation and municipal interests.

In 1938, the O’Shaughnessy Dam was completed on the Tuolumne River, flooding the entire valley under the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. The dam and reservoir are the centerpiece of the Hetch Hetchy Water Transfer System, which began to deliver water 167 miles (269 km) west to San Francisco and its client municipalities in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, such as the water agencies of the Silicon Valley area organized as BAWSCAand Alameda counties. These works have remained contested to the present day on both legal and environmental platforms, with advocates pushing to revise the diversion works so the same amount of water could be diverted near Hetch Hetchy Valley allowing the dam to be removed and restoring the Valley to its former state. In the 21st century, and particularly in the 2012 San Francisco elections, there has been renewed interest in removing the dam. \ (Adapted from Wikipedia, with corrections by Bob Hackamack)


SFPUC’s Hetch Hetchy Water Transfer System


Hetch Hetchy Valley, pre-reservoir 

800px-Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite NP-1200px

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Recent Times

A Perpective on Acerage

To put the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and the Water Transfer System for the San Francisco Public Utility Commission into perspective, let’s look at a few statistics about acerage.

Area of San Francisco: 148,416 acres

Area of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir: 1,972 acres

Area of the Rim Fire: 246,552 (As of Sept 6, 2013, with continued growth expected through Sept 20, 2013) 

Area of City of San Francisco compared to total area of Rim Fire: 60%

Area of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir compared to total area of Rim Fire: .8%

Once the rains in the watershed begin in a month or so, without trees and underbrush to hold soil in place on the steep hillsides that have made the fire so difficult to contain, there will be more challenges for the water quality in the entire Toulumne River Watershed feeding the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and transfer system.  Ash, fire retardant, and other detritus from the fire will wash readily into the creeks, streams and waterways that create the Tuolumne River Watershed.  As the entire ecosystem derives its life from the waterways, not only will be the SFPUC water supply that comes from this watershed be threatened, but the restoration of the watershed ecosystem will take quite some time – that is, in human, not geologic time.


Near head of Hanby Trail behind Tuolumne Trails, Post-fire, August 25, 2013


Looking into Lumsden Canyon from Tuolumne Trails, Post-Fire, August 25, 2013

How Can SFPUC Customers Respond?

What is one appropriate response of SFPUC water customers?  Become deeply aware of your water-related habits – CONSERVE water, REUSE water, add rainwater harvesting cisterns and graywater systems to up the localness of your water supply, as Australia has done post drought and post fire.  Rather than necessitating expensive and potentially long-term unsustainable water transfers to the SFPUC from other water districts, customer water use reduction and localized capture and reuse can make an enormous difference to your future.  And for goodness sake, if you are currently irrigating lawns and locally inappropriate landscaping with this water, stop now.


Map of the Fire Progression as of Aug 27, 2013


Fire Hydrant on ridge of Tuolumne Trails.  They used 3,000 foot of hose during the 36 hour-straight efforts where the fire was first contained.

In the early days of the Rim Fire growth, the Tuolumne Utilities District immediately made a special statement about water conservation, thanking their customers for taking a role in our own sustainable water use.

Wholly H2O encourages Tuolumne River Watershed users to do the same, wherever you may be.


Bumper stickers for Rainwater and Graywater Harvesting from Sierra Watershed Progressive, centered in Groveland, CA

What River Are You Made Of? Tuolumne River from Headwaters to End Use

I’ve been documenting the Rim Fire from Groveland, CA, where I had moved to begin work on a documentary/book project, “What River Are You Made Of? Tuolumne River from Headwaters to End Use.” During my first week here, just days before the fire began, I spent time in the Tuolumne River Watershed in many of the spots now burning or burnt (Lumsdun Canyon, Early Intake/Kirkwood, Camp Mather, Spinningwheel, Buck Meadows, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir).  Sadly, I probably have shot of the last photos taken in the watershed before the fire began.
Read more about the Tuolumne River Watershed in Confluence: A natural and Human History of the Tuolumne River Watershed.


Sap, Early Intake/Kirkwood area of Tuolumne River, August 13, 2013



Tuolumne River Ripples, Early Intake/Kirkwood area of Tuolumne River, August 18, 2013 (shot just about the same time the fire was spotted)



Manzanita Bark, Early Intake/Kirkwood area of Tuolumne River, August 13, 2013



Pinecone, Early Intake/Kirkwood area of Tuolumne River, August 13, 2013

We Love Firemen

A very special thanks to all the firemen from all over the state who are here in the midst of the fire, doing amazing work. The first area of fire containment, along Ferretti Road by Tuolumne Trails and Lumsden Road in Groveland, was accomplished by five firetruck teams from Richmond, El Ceritto, Contra Costa, Moraga-Orinda and Rodeo-Hercules.  Wow, you guys are HOT! Those of us on the front line of the Tuolumne River Watershed fire are all so heart filled with appreciation.


Grovelanders overpouring gratitude that the town is still standing and so are most of the homes, August 27,2013


Downtown Groveland as the Five Engines full of firemen who fought the Ferretti Road Fire, the first area of containment, as they head out of town to the next hotspot, August 27, 2013
They were from the firestations in Richmond, El Cerrito, Contra Costa, Moraga-Orinda and San Ramon

Personal Note: Stay Alive

The night before I left Oakland for Groveland, an older black man on a bike passed me on the sidewalk on San Pablo.  As he rode by, he looked back at me, and exclaimed, “Watch out. And stay alive!”  Ok, Ok, little angel, I am trying.

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Elizabeth Dougherty with some of the fabulous firemaen from the San Diego Region stationed at the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir


On the Rim

By teenager Maya Roe, living in Sonora

The thin paper felt light
insignificant in comparison to the leaden words it held
105,000 acres consumed.
Just a number
with as much significance as any other
yet the voice of my dark eyed friend over the phone,
telling me
that her family left their home today
is not a number.
The fire ran childlike through
the dry late summer grassed hills, the
trees defenseless against her fiercely,
joyously placed footfalls.
Her smoky hair trailing
behind her blanketing the
buildings of my school in sun orange haze
of confusion.
fooling us
with snow flake ash blowing in our eyes
between classes.

The estimated cost of her wrath,
dizzying, tripling daily,
holds nothing against the places she has taken.
Rivers and lakes, in my memory still green and calm
God’s bath
Reed creek
I cannot mourn you or put a number to your loss so
I will measure it in starry nights, in lonely campfires, in shimmering trout
in quiet windless mornings.

I do not know why this child is running through my wilderness,
showing her power in our paper,
with a bloodstain red diagram,
over the places I love.
Bullet hole named
“Point of Origin”.

Another helicopter whirs in and over the treetops, and
I am amazed by nature’s power to remind us that we are only
as large as we make ourselves in our mind.
That we can only hope for the power
to be strong together in a time of disaster,
because we cannot hold this child,
she was lost long ago.
We can only hold our community,
root ourselves to each other, and
open our hearts
to those who left home today.
Who are more than a number.


Starry Night over the Fire Glow



Seed Pod, Early Intake/Kirkwood Area, Aug 13, 2013

Let the New Growth Begin!


Elizabeth Dougherty has been posting her mages from over the days since the fire began are available on Facebook and Twitter

Thanks to Bob Hackamack and Eli Owens for their corrections to infomration in this blog.