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Supervisors call for greater recreational access to watershed

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San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos advocates opening the watershed for public recreation in a video he made for the Open the SF Watershed organization. (Courtesy Open the SF Watershed)

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has aroused the ire of some activists with a recent announcement that parts of the Peninsula Watershed won’t be opened for public recreation before 2017.

Also known as the San Francisco Watershed, the Peninsula Watershed is owned by the SFPUC and contains the Crystal Springs Reservoir, which provides water to SFPUC customers. The watershed encompasses about 26,000 acres, stretching from Pacifica to Woodside.

The SFPUC says it must meet federal environmental impact reporting requirements before it can move forward, and that can be a slow process.

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Some parts of the watershed are already open to the public, in the form of 31 miles of trails for hikers and mountain bicyclists, including the Crystal Springs Regional Trail, which starts in San Bruno and ends north of State Route 92.

But the existing public trails are not contiguous, and the interior of the watershed is a vast wilderness that has been off-limits to the public since 1930.

The SFPUC originally said opening the area to recreational uses might jeopardize the security and integrity of the drinking water supplied by Crystal Springs Reservoir. But the agency has been in talks with advocates who believe outdoor enthusiasts should have access to some of the areas that are currently closed to the public.

Among those advocates is Peninsula resident Andy Howse, who founded a group called Open the SF Watershed. He said he was dismayed when he learned the SFPUC’s planned changes for 2016 will be delayed until next year — if not longer. The changes include allowing unescorted access to a trail currently limited to docent tours and new
trail construction projects that would close the gaps between some noncontiguous trails.

“The watershed is part of our cultural heritage, and it’s a cultural crime, in a sense, to keep us from that heritage,” Howse said.

San Francisco supervisors Scott Wiener and John Avalos introduced a resolution on Tuesday that calls for the SFPUC to provide greater recreational access in the watershed.

While the supervisors are exerting some pressure on the SFPUC, Wiener did not criticize the organization.

“The [SF]PUC’s mission is to deliver water to San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area, and I completely understand they’re focused on that mission and are not a parks agency,” Wiener said.

Tim Ramirez, the watershed’s land manager, said the altered timetable for access reform is partly due to the heightened reporting requirements that come with federal funding.

In one case, Ramirez said, a planned extension to the Fifield-Cahill Ridge Trail would be paid for with a $1 million grant from the California State Coastal Conservancy. But late last year, the SFPUC learned it would need more time to gather all the environmental impact information required for the project to qualify for the grant, according to Ramirez.

Not all community members are in favor of opening access to the lands in question. Some conservationists have concerns about potential impacts from hikers and bikers, and Ramirez said finding consensus among the stakeholders might take time.

Santa Clara Valley Water District board member Gary Kremen said he was confident increased recreational opportunities in the watershed would not jeopardize water quality or harm the environment.

“The SFPUC is quite a reasonable agency,” Kremen said. “They’re just being pulled in different directions by many different constituencies, including some extreme enviros that don’t represent the mainstream.”

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