In the San Francisco Watershed, Public Access and Environmental Protection are Compatible Priorities
As the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission prepares to implement its plans to improve public access to the Peninsula Watershed in 2016 and beyond, protection of the delicate environment of the area is, and should be, a top priority. Environmental protection and sustainability are also top priorities for OSFW as well. We are happy to present answers here to some of the most frequently asked questions about environmental protection in the Watershed:
Are the PUC’s plans putting public access ahead to the Watershed ahead of protecting the area’s environment?
The two short answers are ‘no’ and ‘They couldn’t even if they wanted to.’ Protecting the delicate environment of the Peninsula Watershed is one of the PUC’s top priorities. The PUC owns and operates the Watershed, but it does so under the supervision of local, state, and federal environmental regulatory agencies, all of which must approve any plans or projects before they can begin. The PUC is moving ahead with its plans to improve public access only because it—and the regulatory agencies—are completely satisfied that these plans will not harm or risk harm to the Watershed’s environment.
How does the PUC know that improved public access will not harm the Watershed’s environment?
The PUC’s 376-page Watershed Management Plan, the product of years of work by in-house and outside experts, analyzed a vast array of potential environmental issues, including but not limited to water runoff, erosion, air quality, fires, noise, endangered species habitat, invasive plant and animal species, and hazardous materials entering or leaving the Watershed. The Watershed Management Plan found that on every single dimension, risks from the limited and carefully controlled public access the PUC is planning were either insignificant or could be mitigated by the policies themselves, for example by banning dogs to reduce risks to endangered species. The PUC’s plans are, by law, overseen by all relevant environmental agencies to ensure that nothing was missed. The Watershed Management Plan is publicly available at this link.
How will the PUC ensure that visitors obey the rules and behave responsibly?
The PUC is still in the process of drafting the rules for visitors to the Watershed, based on the findings in its environmental studies. These rules will be the basis of an online mini-course, complete with quizzes, that people wanting to visit will have to complete before receiving a permit to visit the Watershed. The PUC will continue to patrol the Watershed carefully for any unauthorized use or anyone without a permit.
What about the risk of illegal uses of the Watershed, like marijuana farming?
The Management Plan found that some of the greatest risks to the Watershed’s environment come from unauthorized uses. This, however, is not a reason to prohibit authorized access, just as the risk that a burglar might break into your home is not a reason not to invite your friends for dinner. Criminals intent on entering the Watershed for illegal purposes, such as growing marijuana, would much prefer that there be fewer, rather than more, authorized people in the area: just as urban criminals prefer deserted streets. The experience of other Bay Area agencies, including the Marin Municipal Water District, which has for a century overseen open access to its watershed, and the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which uses a permit system similar to the one planned for the Peninsula Watershed, is that authorized users—“eyes on the trails”—are a major deterrent to criminals, and authorized users can find and report illegal activity.
How does public access to the Watershed connect to other environmental goals?
Improving public access to the Watershed is part of a broad, long-term strategy of making the Bay Area environmentally sustainable. A major problem with the current system of docent-only access to the Watershed is that it makes it nearly impossible to visit the Watershed without using a car. The permit system, by allowing visitors to come on their own schedules, will allow them to arrive there by public transit, on foot, or by bike.
Shouldn’t some special places simply be off-limits to humans?
While this is in some ways a philosophical question, in United States law and practice, the answer is ‘no.’ Even land federally designated as Wilderness, the most stringent level of protection available under American law, does not exclude public access. The National Park system, our nation’s system of treasuring and preserving our most important places, is based explicitly on the idea that responsible public access and protection for the environment are mutually reinforcing priorities. Moreover, the Watershed is many things, but it is not untouched nature. People have played a role in the Watershed throughout California’s history. Native Americans lived in the area, and one of the earliest stagecoach routes across the Peninsula ran right through it, complete with an inn and restaurant run by Leander Sawyer. The reservoirs and water pumping systems, now the defining feature of the area, are a human intervention on a vast scale, part of a vital piece of public infrastructure stretching from Yosemite to San Francisco. The roads through the Watershed, many of which are paved, are used daily by the PUC’s trucks. The question is thus not whether there will be human activity in the Watershed but on what terms.
The purpose of the environmental review process—California’s is by far the nation’s strictest—is precisely to determine what activities, like public access, are compatible with protecting the environment of delicate areas, and the plans currently moving forward for improved public access are the result of a long and careful process. We look forward to enjoying the planned improvements to public access in the Watershed, and when we do, we’ll know that our visits are not a threat to the area.