Blog Action Day: The Story of San Francisco’s Tap Water

What's New — By Louis Wertz on October 15, 2010 at 10:07 pm

This year’s Blog Action Day topic is water: that simple yet enigmatic life-sustaining substance that covers more than 70% of the earth’s surface. San Francisco is a city defined by water, literally. Surrounded on three sides by the salty stuff, it is the tale of the City’s fresh water that stands out on this day of global water action.

Hetch Hetchy Valley in 1908

San Francisco is a city defined by water, literally. The City by the Bay is, after all, bounded on three sides by salt water. After the Gold Rush of 1849, which saw San Francisco’s population grow by more than two orders of magnitude in less than a year (from 1000 in 1848 to 25,000 by late 1849), the city was already feeling a pinch on its fresh water resources. Speculators in the 1850s bought water rights or land with springs in the wilderness surrounding San Francisco and transported water on horseback, then carriage, and finally boats across the bay, all to cash a pretty penny upon its sale in San Francisco. Civic leaders were wary that a large company or two could amass control of so much water they could hold the city hostage. As early as the 1870s, city fathers were pushing for development of reservoirs in the Sierra Nevada mountains to supply a municipal water company. Nothing was done.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir with Kolana Rock

Then in 1906, more than half of San Francisco burned to the ground following the Great Earthquake, and the remaining city residents realized another important use for water. Even before the quake, city fathers had proposed the grand and immense Hetch Hetchy Valley along the Tuolumne River, 200 miles to the east and just north of Yosemite Valley, as the site for a great reservoir that would quench all of San Francisco’s water needs. When the plan became public, John Muir and the newly formed Sierra Club led a massive mobilization of conservationists around the country in protest. Just as well damn the people’s cathedrals for water tanks as damn the Hetch Hetchy Valley, John Muir proclaimed. The battle for Hetch Hetchy, as it would come to be called, lasted nearly 7 years, but in the end, San Francisco got its dam and reservoir. John Muir died a year later, but the battle for Hetch Hetchy had immortalized him as the father of the environmentalist movement in America.

O'Shaughnessy Dam

Since 1923, upon completion of the O’Shaughnessy Dam at the mouth of Hetch Hetchy Valley, along with an immense system of pipes and pumps, San Francisco began receiving its drinking water directly from the Sierra Nevada, mere miles from the glaciers that are its source. The battle for Hetch Hetchy continues today, with groups of outspoken environmentalists continually calling for the dam’s removal and the restoration of “Yosemite’s Twin.”

Drink some San Francisco tap water on your visit to the city; think of the spectacular lengths San Francisco went to to provide it, and how those great lengths helped start the environmental movement.

San Franciscans are lucky. California may have a “water crisis,” but its nothing like what nearly a billion people on earth face daily. Those people don’t have access to clean safe drinking water. This leads to more than 42,000 deaths per week, of which 90% are children 5 and under. Read more about global water issues, other blogs about water, and Blog Action Day, at Blog Action at

Check out other NileGuide destination blog posts in celebration of Blog Action Day: NYC, Boulder, Bryce Canyon

Tags: "Blog Action Day", "hetch hetchy", "O'Shaughnessy Dam", environmental, global, muir, water

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