A trail along a picturesque Peninsula ridge in the Crystal Springs watershed is expected to be transformed into a hiking, horseback-riding and biking Shangri-la that some Bay Area residents have been pushing for.
But San Francisco water officials say that they are against proposals to open the entire reservoir roadway system.
San Francisco Public Utilities Commission officials said they plan to open an 11-mile dirt and gravel road by the end of 2016 and build connections to other trails along the spectacular coast mountains of the Peninsula.
It would be the first time the San Francisco utility has lifted restrictions on access to the land surrounding the reservoir, opening 23,000 acres of scenery for the public to admire. The proposal was hailed by Bay Area residents who have long sought access to the trails in the watershed.
“I’m very encouraged,” said Jim Sullivan, a docent for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and San Mateo County parks. “These are existing corridors that have been accessed by patrol vehicles, horseback riders and utility workers for many years.”
The proposal brings park advocates closer to their dream of creating a giant network of trails through the watershed and connecting with federal, state and local parklands.
Andy Howse, who started a group last year called Open the SF Watershed, is urging the commission to open all eight of its fire roads and trails, giving the public access to 35 square miles of watershed. He says the roads and ridges surrounding the reservoir have been a public resource since 1862, when the Spring Valley Water Company redirected Pilarcitas Creek through tunnels and flumes, delivering the first water to San Francisco.
“The area is full of trails that go back to the 1860s,” Howse said. “They belong to the people in perpetuity. If you want to protect this watershed for the next 100 years, it really should be part of a park system.”
San Francisco Supervisors John Avalos and Scott Wiener also recently urged the commission, which manages the city water system, to open the watershed for recreation.
“We are a densely populated region and we are growing. We are also a region that really values open space and recreational access,” Wiener said during the public hearing. “When people are actually able to experience the absolute majesty of lands like this watershed, it only builds support for good stewardship and for working, not just here but around the world, to preserve our open space, our forests and our watersheds.”
Steven Ritchie, assistant general manager at the SFPUC, said opening all of the land would be irresponsible.“That land has been protected for many years, and as a result we get the benefit of having very high-quality water and protected habitat for rare and protected species,” Ritchie said. “The more people have access, the less control we have out there and the more chance there is of a fire. That’s something that none of us need.”
The plan, as it stands now, is to open up the Fifield-Cahill Ridge Trail, stretching from Sweeney Ridge, west of San Bruno, to the Skylawn Memorial Park at Highway 92. Docent tours would end and the utility would instead establish an online permit system for trail users.
A new 7-mile extension would then be built starting at the memorial park, extending along Skyline Boulevard to the Phleger Estate in Woodside.
“It would allow you to get from one end of our watershed to the other,” said Ritchie.
He said the water district, in conjunction with San Mateo County and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, would then build a steep, winding 2-mile trail on the north end of the watershed, connecting the Ridge Trail to San Mateo’s Crystal Springs Regional Trail by the end of 2017.
The commission is talking with the GGNRA about opening gates on Whiting Ridge, giving hikers, bikers and equestrians access to the entire ridgetop, Montara Mountain and a huge swath of land known as Rancho Corral de Tierra. In all, 15 miles of new trails would be open.
But it is not yet a done deal.
Before the trails can be opened, the utility would need to fulfill Endangered Species Act and California Environmental Quality Act requirements, including an outline of how it intends to protect endangered San Francisco garter snakes and California red-legged frogs.
Environmental concerns have delayed the paving of a 3-mile stretch of service road that was once a stagecoach route overlooking the small towns and farmland that were eventually covered by Crystal Springs Reservoir.
The Golden Gate Audubon Society and the California Native Plant Society are opposed to unfettered public access out of fear that birds’ nests and plants would be trampled. Mike Ferreira, the conservation chairman of the Loma Prieta chapter of the Sierra Club, said at the recent hearing that his organization “is extremely doubtful.”
“The whole concept of opening up wild places for recreation sort of cuts across our grain,” Ferreira said. “We think we need to be very careful.” Officials’ fears
The push for access to Crystal Springs has been going on for decades, but the city PUC blocked every effort, saying people would set fires and kill endangered species. There was fear after the 9/11 attacks that terrorists would poison the lakes, which provide 7 percent of the drinking water for 2.4 million people in four Bay Area counties.
The watershed is home to 165 species of birds, 800 species of plants and trees, 50 species of mammals, and 30 species of reptiles and amphibians. Biologists say there are more rare, threatened and endangered species at Crystal Springs than anywhere else in the Bay Area.
Local activists, led by the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council, would not give up. Finally in 2002 the commission agreed to allow group hikes, bike rides and horseback rides with trained guides on the 11-mile-ridge service road.
The plans outlined this month would connect miles of protected land in one giant loop from Woodside to Pacifica and from San Bruno to San Carlos, completing another section of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, a 500-mile ring of trails through all nine Bay Area counties.
Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @pfimrite
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