Peninsula watershed access plan heads to vote

A proposal to further open up a large tract of Peninsula open space controlled by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to the public continues to meet with stiff opposition from environmental groups.

At a hearing Monday before the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee, groups including the Sierra Club, Audubon Society and the Committee for Green Foothills spoke against a resolution urging the SFPUC to expand public access to trails in the Peninsula Watershed.

Public officials and recreation advocates have pushed for years for increased access to the watershed area, a 23,000-acre open space area in San Mateo County that includes the Crystal Springs, San Andreas and Pilarcitos reservoirs. The area has been kept largely off limits in an effort to protect water quality and wildlife.

Currently, the public has access to the Crystal Springs Regional Trail on the eastern edge of the watershed, which is managed by San Mateo County Parks, and can sign up for docent led walks on the Fifield-Cahill Ridge Trail within the watershed.

The SFPUC is now considering moving to a system that would allow unlimited trail access to hikers who paid for an annual permit, according to Tim Ramirez, manager of land management and natural resources for the commission. In addition, the agency is working on developing 11 miles of planned trails within the watershed, including a 6-mile extension of the Bay Ridge Trail.

Ramirez said:

“Development of an annual permit system will increase education and recreation opportunities. … We’re trying always to work to provide these opportunities for people in a way that is consistent with our goals for the watershed.”

Proponents for increased access today described the move as a matter of social justice and described efforts by environmental groups to limit access as “elitist.” However environmental groups said social justice could be served by increasing partnerships with schools and groups in underserved areas, without endangering the watershed.

They warned that hikers would inevitably wander off trail, increasing erosion, harming protected wildlife and increasing the risk of a fire. More rangers and enforcement would be required, at an unknown cost.

Lennie Roberts of the Committee for Green Foothills said:

“This is a protected watershed and a wildlife refuge. … It is not a park and it was never contemplated as a park. … It would take only one match to turn this treasured place into a disaster zone.”

The resolution discussed by the committee today, which was introduced by Supervisors John Avalos, Scott Wiener and David Campos earlier this year, is nonbonding, and any final decision on access to the watershed will be made by the SFPUC.

Despite a bid by Avalos and Supervisor Aaron Peskin to hold the resolution over another week for further discussion with stakeholder groups, the committee voted 2-1 to forward the resolution to the full board for a vote on Sept. 27. Supervisors Wiener and Malia Cohen voted in support, with Peskin opposed.