Legislative Branch

Hetch Hetchy: Congress and the Environment

Guiding Question:

What environmental positions were reflected in the 1908-1913 congressional debate about damming the Hetch Hetchy Valley?  How do those positions inform today’s environmental debates?


Students will study the Hetch Hetchy debate with primary sources from the records of Congress. From 1908-1913, Congress debated legislation to supply the city of San Francisco with water by damming the Hetch Hetchy Valley. As it debated this legislation, Congress negotiated the fate of a federally protected valley located in Yosemite National Park-asking should the dam be built or the valley preserved? 


14 Document Facsimiles 

Debate Overview


Note: The 14 Document Facsimiles and Debate Overview can also be accessed online at Hetch Hetchy Environmental Debates

Recommended Levels:

Grades 7 - 12


U.S. History or Civics

Time Required:

45 minutes

Learning Activities:

Activity 1: Analysis

Have all students read the debate overview and page one of the HR 7207, the "Raker Bill”. Note: you may use the handout or navigate to our feature on the Hetch Hetchy Environmental Debates to access the overview and copy of the Raker Bill.

Divide the class into four small groups. Assign each group to analyze one or more of the remaining 13 primary sources using the Worksheet. Note: you may navigate to our feature on the Hetch Hetchy Environmental Debates to access the primary sources. Have each group prepare to share its analysis with the class and explain how and to what extent their document(s) reflect(s) one of the following statements about the value of the Hetch Hetchy Valley:

  • The valley belongs to all the people as a public playground.
  • The valley is a water resource that San Francisco has a legal right to develop.
  • The valley should be dammed as a source of pure drinking water essential to public health in San Francisco.
  • The valley is a scenic resource to the nation as an unspoiled wonder.

Activity 2: Discussion

After each group has shared its analysis, have the whole class discuss the following questions:

  • Which document presented the strongest argument for or against building the dam?
  • Was the evidence stronger for the dam or against the dam?
  • Which, if any, of the four statements about the value of the Hetch Hetchy Valley listed above presents the view of the environment that today’s Congress should adopt as a general principle?

Activity 3: Reflection

Drawing from their work in the previous activities, have the class as a whole discuss the following questions:

  • Which of the positions expressed in the Hetch Hetchy debate a century ago are still relevant in decisions between development and preservation today?
  • What local and national issues pose a choice similar to that in the Hetch Hetchy debate? How might understanding the debate over the Hetch Hetchy Valley inform environmental debates today?

Extension Activity: Placing the Debate in Historical Context:

Instruct individual students or groups of students to use online and print resources to answer the following questions:

  • What decision was reached about the Hetch Hetchy debate in the early 20th century?
  • What is the state of the valley today?
  • What is the state of the debate over the valley today?

Additional Resources:

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