In the late 19th century San Francisco was growing. Between 1850 and 1890 the City had essentially grown by a factor of ten. And this populace needed water.
In 1896 James Phelan, an Irish immigrant, was elected Mayor on the Progressive ticket. And he had a vision for San Francisco, and beyond. He saw a metropolis in the Bay Area, and so he focused on a solution for watering this metropolis. Where he set his sights was the Tuolumne River, and with it a grand reservoir in the Hetch Hetchy Valley.
With many discontented by the privatized water services of the Spring Valley Water Company, Phelan advocated for public control of water systems and government sponsored engineering projects. In this he found a friend in William Hammond Hall, the State Engineer. Hall knew San Francisco well. He had designed and built Golden Gate Park. Hall recognized that the dams and aqueducts required to fulfill Phelan’s vision capital well beyond private capabilities, so the plan required advocating for public financing.
In 1902 the U.S. Congress passed the National Reclamation Act. The Act “requires surplus fees from sales of land be set aside for a “reclamation fund” for the development of water resources.” Focused on the arid West, plans were executed for damming western rivers to support massive irrigation projects. And so the idea of damming the Tuolumne moved one step closer to reality.
Rights to the Tuolumne water had been granted in 1908, under the then Department of the Interior James R. Garfield. This was in response to a petition by San Francisco to the Department following the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire – and the failure of the water system which allowed that fire to destroy over four square miles of San Francisco real estate.
Perhaps the last hurdle was the problem of creating that reservoir in Yosemite National Park. This would require an act of Congress, which happened in 1913 known as the Raker Act. This legislation permitted flooding of the valley under the conditions that power and water derived from the river could only be utilized for public interests.
Meanwhile, the citizens of San Francisco and other counties in the vicinity continued to be at odds with the private water company. And ballot initiatives for San Francisco to acquire Spring Valley Water Company were posted and defeated five times, until finally in 1930 when the citizens voted to acquire Spring Valley for $41 million.
The SFPUC’s archives includes a 1953 cover letter from one Joseph Murphy of a local labor union (Local No. 36) to the then Assistant Superintendent of the SF Water Department, John O’Marie. Included with the letter was a ballot endorsing the 1907 defeat of a ballot measure to acquire Spring Valley. Rather, they endorsed to buy Lake Eleanor and build their own system. This was one of the famous five defeats.