Attitudes shifting about public access to Peninsula Watershed lands 

A vast Peninsula wilderness that has been mostly off-limits to the public since 1930 could be opened up to hikers and nature lovers under plans being discussed today by a San Francisco Board of Supervisors committee.

Home to the Crystal Springs Reservoir, the Peninsula Watershed provides drinking water for customers of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which has historically kept the public out in order to protect the water supply.

But letting hikers in would not necessarily compromise water safety, said activist Andy Howse, who launched his Open the SF Watershed organization and Facebook page over a year ago. Howse noted that some existing trails, along with state Highway 92, already allow the public to potentially access the reservoir.

And many of the proposed hiking trails would be downslope from the water, or far enough from the reservoir that they would not be a cause for concern, Howse said. The SFPUC might be coming around to Howse’s way of thinking, as the activist noted that last year the agency removed from its website a statement identifying water safety as the reason members of the public were excluded from the area.

But, said SFPUC spokesman Tyrone Jue, some of the trails that might be opened are in sensitive habitats, and possible impacts on endangered species need to be studied before any decision is made.

The watershed’s northernmost point touches Sweeney Ridge in Pacifica, and its southernmost tip is adjacent to Woodside’s Filoli gardens. Between those points are roughly 26,000 acres of open space that few Bay Area residents have seen.

Nature is not the only thing about the watershed that might attract would-be explorers. The Spring Valley Water Co. began operating there in 1860, providing the water that enabled San Francisco to grow and thrive. Howse said he’s eager to explore Pilarcitos Valley, a part of the watershed where artifacts from the 19th century water company’s activities might be found.

But SFPUC has no current proposal to grant access to Pilarcitos, said Jue, because that area is home to several sensitive species and does not connect to any regional trails.

Closing the gaps between the regional trails in and around the watershed is one of the agency’s goals. Howse agrees with that goal, which he says could eventually provide a contiguous trail enabling outdoor enthusiasts to hike or bike from San Bruno or Pacifica, through the watershed’s hills, all the way to Half Moon Bay.

The watershed falls within the purview of numerous organizations that would have to be involved in any discussion about opening up those trails, Jue said. Among those organizations are the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the San Mateo County Parks Department and the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council.

Co-sponsored by supervisors John Avalos and Scott Wiener, today’s hearing is an initial information session and will not involve major decisions on the matter.

However, Wiener said it’s important to prevent inertia from slowing any progress that might be made toward opening the watershed for recreation. And although the area is on the Peninsula, Wiener views expanded access as something that would benefit San Franciscans.

“San Francisco and San Mateo County are very intertwined,” the supervisor noted. “Sometimes you want to get out of The City and see the full majesty of the Bay Area.”
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