A Tap Water Pilgrimage to Hetch Hetchy

(This post originally appeared in the SF Environment blog on SFgate.com/green just last week and is based on a true story.)

We’ve got great tap water here in San Francisco, but do you know where it comes from? What’s more, have you ever been there? After five years in the Bay Area, I finally had the chance to visit my tap water at its source in the Hetch Hetchy valley of the Sierra Nevada. My name is Lawrence Grodeska, and I’m the Internet Communications Coordinator at SF Environment, and this is the story of one man and his quest for connection with his water supply.

Early one Friday morning about a month ago, I left San Francisco with two friends for a weekend of backpacking. We drove due east for 4 hours and finally hit the trailhead at O’Shaughnessy Dam, the gateway to the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. At 312 feet, the dam itself does not have the impact of the Hoover Dam (726 feet!), but O’Shaughnessy’s story is the stuff of legend.

In 1913, from a proposal by then San Francisco Mayor James Phelan, and aided by lobbying efforts of national proponents of the development of natural resources, Congress passed the Raker Act. The Act granted SF “certain rights of way in, over and through certain public lands, the Yosemite National Park, and Stanislaus National Forest…and the public lands in the State of California, and for other purposes.”

Those “other purposes” boiled down to the rights to flood the Hetch Hetchy valley to create a water-and-power system for the City & County of San Francisco. Situated in a pristine canyon in the northwest of Yosemite, the steep canyon walls were ideal conditions for a reservoir. The Army Corps of Engineers built the O’Shaughnessy Dam over the span of 7 years, battling rugged terrain and harsh elements, as well as the strong protests of fabled conservationist John Muir, to complete the dam in 1923.

I had long been curious to see Hetch Hetchy, the source of the water that comes out of our San Francisco faucets so consistently and deliciously. Perhaps it was the curiously alluring name – apparently the Central Miwok word for a common edible grass in the valley. Or maybe the contentious issue of who should profit from the water system, or even the engineering feats necessary to deliver such a municipal gift across 190 miles. More than anything, however, being an urban dweller removed from the source of his sustenance, I considered a visit to my water supply a pilgrimage of sorts.

Finally stepping onto the O’Shaughnessy Dam that day, backpack and all, I could feel the collective effort that was harnessed to create this enduring tribute to humanity’s ingenuity and brash survival instincts. My three short days of exploring the upper reaches of my watershed paled in comparison to that herculean effort, but I felt proud to be getting in touch with my water, and very eager to trace that water upstream.

After our initial admiration subsided, we trekked through the dry, hot heat of late summer in the Sierra. Thanks to the Raker Act, we had to trek an extra mile! The Act established some strict criteria for the protection of San Francisco’s water supply which are followed to this day. “No person shall bathe, wash clothes or cooking utensils [in, or] any way pollute, the water within the limits of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir…or in the streams leading thereto, within one mile of said reservoir.” Despite the impassioned pleas of park Rangers upon entering Yosemite, we met a few folks on the trail who were still incredulous about the strict nature of these provisions. Maybe they’ve never drank unfiltered San Francisco tap water, because I think that is all the justification necessary.

Camping at Las Rancheria Falls that night was quite a treat. The small meadow situated at 5000 feet elevation was a perfect spot for taking in the late summer stars so resplendent during the new moon. It may sound like a tall tale, but that weekend I saw the most spectacular shooting star I have ever seen. I even learned a few new constellations with my trusty star chart, including the king, Cepheus.

The biggest delight of all, however, was bearing witness to the hydrological cycle that brings San Franciscans their water every day. There is a foot bridge which crosses Rancheria Falls, above which swimming is finally permitted in a spectacular swimming hole, chiseled by eons of sediment flow. I lingered long at this spot, but being the intrepid explorer, I needed to push further. Bushwhacking over a ridge and dropping back into the river bed, I found a long string of smaller, serene pools and plenty of smooth, wide rocks for sun bathing.

I spent most of my Saturday lounging about the upper reaches of this tributary to the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, a welcome opportunity to divest myself from the cares and concerns of life in the city. Relaxing on the rocks, dipping in and out of the stream, letting the ripples of sound wash over me, I was gently reminded of why water has been called the “molecule of life”. The very biochemistry of life on planet Earth depends upon the unique features of the water molecule.

I’ve always felt drawn to bodies of water, from swimming holes and streams to lakes and oceans. Whatever the reasons for water’s magnetism – basic chemistry or simple soothing pull – I did have a different perspective of Hetch Hetchy as I descended back into the valley on Sunday. Taking in the whole of the reservoir, in all its splendor and conundrum, I was grateful to know a bit more about the water I depend on everyday. For all the controversy over whether the dam and reservoir should be there and who profits from it, San Franciscans could do a lot worse.