Hetch Hetchy water’s long trip from Sierra to San Francisco

Just to the east of Crystal Springs Reservoir sits the Pulgas Water Temple, a landmark commemorating completion in 1934 of the Hetch Hetchy aqueduct, which brought water from the lakes and valleys in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to kitchen taps in the Bay Area. An inscription above the temple’s columns reads: “I give waters in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my people.”

It took 22 years and $100 million to complete the Hetch Hetchy system, and on Oct. 28, 1934, thousands of people celebrated as water flowed into Crystal Springs Reservoir in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The Chronicle archives overflow with photos documenting the downstream journey of Hetch Hetchy’s water — an engineering marvel that feeds power stations and fills reservoirs. So here’s a follow-up to our previous column on O’Shaughnessy Dam and Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Chronicle writer Royce Brier was on hand in 1934 when the project was completed, writing: “In a pastoral meadow in San Mateo County yesterday afternoon culminated one of man’s proudest engineering achievements when Hetch Hetchy water burst its bounds of time and distance and flowed into Crystal Springs Reservoir.”

He continued: “It was the wine of a great dream fulfilled, of a great and often heartbreaking task accomplished, the wine of triumph in strife with Nature and one her most closely guarded treasures in the Western land.” Eighty-nine workers lost their lives completing the 155-mile system.

Moccasin Powerhouse in Tuolumne County, near Sonora, is one of the stops on the water’s journey west. Penstock pipes leading down to the powerhouse steer water at enormous pressure to turn turbines that generate electricity. Moccasin is what’s known as a company town, where almost all of the homes are owned by the city and county of San Francisco, operated to supply housing for workers on the city’s Hetch Hetchy Project.

According to Chronicle reporter Carl Nolte, who wrote in the 1990s about the town of Moccasin and the power station: “Moccasin is like a valve in the system’s heart — 300 million gallons of water flow through the town every day in the summer. The powerhouse generates 305,000 megawatts of electricity. The power that runs the Municipal Railway’s electric buses and subway trains and turns on the lights at SFO comes from Moccasin.”

Through a series of pipelines, tunnels and treatment plants, the water makes its way to San Francisco, providing water to 2.7 million people.

At the end of the Sierra water’s journey is the Crystal Springs Reservoir, visible from Interstate 280. The lakes, Crystal Springs, San Andreas and Pilarcitos, are surrounded by 23,000 acres of woodlands and chaparral. Many plans from golf courses to parks have been considered, but unsupervised access to the area is still limited, with San Francisco Water Department employees among the lucky few.

Bill Van Niekerken is the library director of The San Francisco Chronicle, where he has worked since 1985. In his weekly column, From the Archive, he explores the depths of The Chronicle’s vast photography archive in search of interesting historical tales related to the city by the bay.

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