SAN FRANCISCO -- In a potential coup for Bay Area nature lovers, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is unveiling a proposal to expand public access within the Peninsula Watershed, a 23,000-acre wildlife refuge surrounding the Crystal Springs Reservoir system.
The plan would allow the public greater freedom to hike, bike and ride horses along the Fifield-Cahill Ridge Trail. The dirt and gravel road runs about 10 miles from Sweeney Ridge on the northern end of the property down to Highway 92, affording sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay.
Steven Ritchie, the commission's assistant general manager for water and natural resources, outlined the plan in a December memo to general manager Harlan L. Kelly Jr.
The commission is disclosing its vision at a time of renewed political pressure to open the watershed to more public use. San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos, at the urging of a grass-roots group called Open the S.F. Watershed, called Tuesday for a public hearing on increasing access to the rugged and mostly pristine refuge, which runs from San Bruno to Woodside but is owned by the city of San Francisco.
"As we look around at watersheds around the Bay Area, including Marin County and even Santa Clara County, a lot of the watershed is open for hikers and for people who would like to use the trails," Avalos told his colleagues. "The lands around Crystal Springs are remarkable, incredible sources of floral and fauna and it's something that would be a wonder to see if we could actually get there without having to get special permits."
Open space advocates have long clamored for the commission to loosen its strict management of the watershed, a vital part of the Hetch Hetchy Regional Water System that provides drinking water to 2.4 million people in San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda counties. The agency has resisted over concerns about water security and the potential impact on numerous rare and endangered plant and animal species.
But the commission's stance appears to have softened -- at least a little. Tim Ramirez, manager of the commission's Natural Resources and Lands Management Division, said the shift reflects internal deliberations and discussions with the public.
"It's a very big change," said Ramirez, "and we have folks that are super excited about it and can't wait and we have folks who are super nervous about it."
Ramirez identified state and federal wildlife agencies and conservation groups as stakeholders who are wary of the proposal. Some open space advocates, on the other hand, argue the commission hasn't gone nearly far enough.
"It's a great baby step, but much more needs to be done," said Match.com founder Gary Kremen, a member of Open the S.F. Watershed. The group claims the commission should open all the access roads on the property to the public and has garnered support from San Mateo County Supervisors Dave Pine and Don Horsley.
Supporters, opponents and the rest of the public will have a chance to weigh in on the plan at commission hearings later this year.
The agency has allowed limited, docent-led tours of Fifield-Cahill since 2003 without observing any negative effects on habitat or wildlife, Ramirez said. Under the commission's proposal, the trail would be open from dawn to dusk, seven days a week, but users would need to get a permit.
The proposal for Fifield-Cahill is one of several improvements the commission is planning for the trail system within and along the watershed.
With the help of a $1 million grant from the California Coastal Conservancy, the agency expects to begin construction next year on a new 6-mile trail from Highway 92 to the redwood groves of Phleger Estate, a Golden Gate National Recreation Area property north of Woodside. The commission envisions finishing the trail extension and expanding access to Fifield-Cahill by the end of 2016.
Together, the two connecting trails would plug a major gap in the Bay Area Ridge Trail, a planned trail system meandering more than 550 miles around San Francisco Bay.
"We're totally supportive and applaud the proposal," said Janet McBride, executive director of the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council. "Basically, it would allow a lot of increased flexibility."
In the longer term, the commission is also considering a trail extension at Whiting Ridge, which would connect the northern portion of the Peninsula Watershed to Montara Mountain and Rancho Corral de Tierra, two of the most scenic spots on the San Mateo County coast.
Members of the Open the San Francisco Watershed group, from left. Erik Meister, Andy Howse, Gary Kremem, Daniel Yost and Charlie Krenz, walk along the dam at Crystal Springs Reservoir, Calif., on Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015. The group wants to open up the Peninsula Watershed to hiking and recreation. (John Green/Bay Area News Group) ( JOHN GREEN )