Water Resource Collections and Archives


San Francisco Water Supply: Sources of Information

San Francisco Water Supply: Sources of Information

A Brief History: San Francisco's Water Supply

Materials documenting the engineering, political, social, and environmental The Water Supply of San Francisco, 1912.efforts and concerns of the past 160 years are disparate. The majority of the published research cites materials found at the Water Resources Collections and Archives (UCR), The Bancroft Library (UCB), and the History Center of the San Francisco Public Library. More adventurous researchers will find themselves at the California Historical Society (San Francisco), however it is more difficult for users to locate materials held at institutions that do not promote their materials and do not have a publicly accessible online catalog. These include San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), National Park Service (Hetch Hetchy Valley is federal land), California Department of Water Resources, Sierra Club, various environmental agencies, and local historical societies and public libraries in the Sierra.

The need for external water supply to San Francisco was realized and rapidly heightened during the Gold Rush in 1849 -- prior to California’s admittance as a state of the Union (1850) -- at which time drinking water was sold by the barrel and bucket. The engineering enhancements, socio-political aspects, and environmental concerns of San Francisco’s water have been controversial and continually active ever since.

In the period of 1849 - 1906 water was imported from Marin, the first pipelines were laid in San Francisco (1856), and a handful of local dams and reservoirs were formed. The 1906 earthquake disrupted San Francisco’s water supply and both the citizens and the government realized the dire need for a secure source of potable water. By 1908 Interior Secretary James Garfield granted San Francisco permission to develop Hetch Hetchy and Lake Eleanor. Despite the efforts of John Muir and the Sierra Club, the Raker Bill allowed the valley to be flooded in 1913. The O’Shaughnessy Dam was completed in 1923 and currently provides 85% of San Francisco’s drinking water. The last 100 years have been defined by multi-million dollar contracts and bond measures, continuous construction (new and upkeep of old), and environmental outcry calling for the restoration of the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

In fact environmental efforts coupled with the growing maintenance cost of the current system have recently spurred public and media comment, environmental investigation reports and related publications, inquiries into financial feasibility, and a review by the California Resources Agency. The Resources Agency asked the Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) to review existing studies on the impacts of restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley. A few recent publications, including the Resources Agency report, of note include:

  • Finding the way back to Hetch Hetchy Valley : a vision of steps to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park and to replace water and energy supplies : feasibility study 2005 / by Restore Hetch Hetchy (2005).
  • Dam! : water, power, politics, and preservation in Hetch Hetchy and Yosemite National Park / by John Warfield Simpson (Pantheon Books, 2005).
  • The battle over Hetch Hetchy : America's most controversial dam and the birth of modern environmentalism / by Robert W. Righter (Oxford University Press, 2005).
  • Hetch Hetchy restoration study / State of California: The Resources Agency; Department of Water Resources; Department of Parks and Recreation (2006) -- The report, fact sheets, and further information are available from DWR's website.
Last modified: 5/31/2011 2:44 PM by S. Haren

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