The Pulgas Water Temple sits in striking contrast to the coastal oak woodland that surrounds it in Redwood City, California. A huge stone structure, it’s majestic and very neoclassical-lofty. It’s pretty cool in an over-the-top 1960s epic historical movie kind of way. I half expected Julius Caesar and Cleopatra to come walking across the water of the sky blue reflecting pool, climb the formal stone steps of the circular temple, and loudly proclaim the magnificence of the flowing water for the people of the Nile River Delta.
This is exactly the feeling that the temple builders were going for. The Pulgas Water Temple was designed to be a grandiose monument to the wide-ranging achievements culminating in the Hetch Hetchy water system. It marks the end of the 167-mile Hetch Hetchy aqueduct. The aqueduct moves water from the majestic peaks of Yosemite National Park in the high Sierra Nevada mountain range across the parched Central Valley of California to the San Francisco Bay Area. The system involves more than 60 miles of tunnels and several reservoirs and pump stations.
The temple is at the southern edge of the Upper Crystal Springs Reservoir, which is one of a system of four reservoirs built between 1865 and 1888 by the Spring Valley Water Company to provide water for San Francisco. It straddles the spot where waters from the Tuolumne River watershed mix with local water within the San Francisco and Peninsula watersheds.
Century-long Controversy over Moving Water to San Francisco
Acquiring the necessary land, capital, and permits for the Hetch Hetchy water system required not only impressive feats of structural engineering but also feats of political maneuvering and deft public relations. The story begins in the 1880s when San Francisco’s leaders realized they needed more water than their local watersheds could provide.
Bringing water west from the Sierra was an idea that had started as early as the 1860s when a former Spring Valley Water Company employee decided to try to bring Sierra water to both the Central Valley and the Nevada desert for irrigation. Although he had little success, the idea took root of moving water across huge distances, not to mention challenging geography.
In 1882, getting water to San Francisco from the Tuolumne River watershed was seen as a real possibility, so numerous investigations and several studies were conducted. In 1900, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) recommended the Hetch Hetchy Valley, at the headwaters of the Tuolumne River, as the best source for San Francisco’s water supply. It was during this time, in 1890, that Congress established Yosemite National Park, which includes the Hetch Hetchy Valley.
James Phelan, then the mayor of San Francisco, was so convinced that Tuolumne water was essential that he and city engineers privately funded surveys and filed for water rights as private citizens. From past experience with the Spring Valley Water Company, they were afraid that if what San Francisco was up to became known, private investors would move in for a profiteering land grab.
San Francisco’s first attempt to secure a permit from the US Department of Interior to develop Hetch Hetchy, in 1903, was denied by E. A. Hitchcock, who was then Secretary of the Interior. Major issues concerned whether he had the authority to approve such a permit and the fact that Hetch Hetchy was in a national park.
The next 10 years were a decade of fierce political maneuvering and hardball plays by the City of San Francisco, which wanted to develop Hetch Hetchy, as well as other water companies that wanted to sell San Francisco a different water system (getting water from other Sierra watersheds: the American and Consumnes), irrigation districts in the Toulomne watershed that also wanted rights to the water, and the legendary John Muir and the Sierra Club who wanted to save Hetch Hetchy Valley from being dammed.
The city applied for another development permit in 1905 and was again turned down. In early 1906, the city supervisors voted to abandon the Hetch Hetchy project. But the 1906 earthquake quickly changed their minds. The quake caused fires that burned for days, and the failure of the water system to provide enough water to fight the fires became fuel to reignite the city’s commitment to secure water rights to Hetch Hetchy.
In 1907, the city began courting the latest Secretary of Interior, James R. Garfield. The Sierra Club, which formed in 1892, saw what the city was trying to do and began a serious campaign to save Hetch Hetchy Valley. When the city applied for a permit again in 1908, Garfield approved it but only conditionally. He stipulated that Lake Eleanor, a much smaller water source, had to be developed first, before they could develop Hetch Hetchy Valley, the real prize.
In 1910, San Francisco began development of Lake Eleanor but insisted that it needed to develop Hetch Hetchy at the same time. In response, the opposition successfully lobbied the new Secretary of the Interior, Richard A. Ballinger, to visit Hetch Hetchy Valley himself and reopen the issue. Ballinger forced the city to show cause why they truly needed to develop Hetch Hetchy Valley and to again investigate alternatives. He also created a special Board of Army Engineers to investigate the issue.
In 1911, Ballinger resigned due to poor health. In 1912, the next Secretary of the Interior, Walter L. Fisher, convened more hearings. In 1913, the Board of Army Engineers recommended approving the project. Fisher then backpedaled by deciding that he did not have the regulatory authority to grant such a permit after all and declared that it would require an act of Congress.
Final approval for the project came down to the 1913 Raker Act. Testimony in the Senate became national in scope, with letters and newspapers from coast to coast weighing in on the issue. The act passed on December 6, 1913, probably because on December 2, William Randolph Hearst created a 16-page Washington edition of the San Francisco Examiner in support of its passage and put it on every Senator’s desk. After winning, the city started work on damming Hetch Hetchy within four months.
Pulgas Water Temple: Grand Finale to an Epic Battle
Twenty years later, the first rush of water from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir came through the Pulgas Water Temple. The assembled dignitaries proclaimed the achievement and reminded San Franciscans how much safer the city was from future earthquake fires with this new reliable water supply. It turns out the dignitaries were assembled around only a temporary temple that was an exact replica of the Sunol Water Temple built in 1910.
The permanent temple was built in 1938 and, like the Sunol temple, was designed in the Beaux Arts style. The idea for both temples was to reflect the architecture of ancient Greeks and Romans whose engineering inspired the new water systems. For decades, the Hetch Hetchy water actually went through the Pulgas Water Temple. Stories abound of people jumping down into the temple and riding the waters through the tunnel into the reservoir. Whether these tales are true or urban legend is unclear, but in 2004, such a feat became impossible when the main water water flow was diverted to a treatment plant. Now, water that flows through the temple is just a small, symbolic amount and clearly flows to pipes.
The Fight Isn’t Over Yet
The Sierra Club has never forgotten Hecth Hetchy Valley. Beginning with a 1955 movie called Two Yosemites, they portray the Hetch Hetchy water system as a mistake. That opinion has gained a lot of traction since 1970 when the Sierra Club first began calling for O’Shaughnessy Dam, the dam that impounds Hetch Hetchy Valley, to be removed and the valley to be restored.
In 1999, the organization called Restore Hetch Hetchy was formed by a consortium of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, to intensify lobbying for that goal. They have been so successful that, in 2012, San Francisco residents were asked to vote on Proposition F, which would have required the the City of San Francisco to evaluate how to drain and restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley and to identify replacement water and power sources. However, only 23% voted in favor, so that initiative failed.
Restore Hetch Hetchy advocates contend that numerous studies have shown the idea is feasible. They are regrouping and plan to continue the nearly 100-year fight. You can watch their short Restore Hetch Hetchy video on YouTube.
<i>The Battle Over Hetch Hetchy: America's Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism</i>, by Robert W. Righter. Oxford University Press, 2006.
<i>A History of the Municipal Water Department & Hetch Hetchy System</i>, by San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. San Francisco Water and Power, 2005.
Chapter 2: Existing Regional Water System. San Francisco Public Utility Commission Water System Improvement Program EIR, Case No. 2005.0159E. ESA+ Orion / 203287, 2007.
<i>Local Girl Makes History: Exploring Northern California’s Kitsch Monuments</i>, by Dana Frank. City Lights Foundation Books, 2007.
Hetch Hetchy: Timeline of the Ongoing Battle over Hetch Hetchy . Sierra Club website.
Sunol Water Temple. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., December 2015.
Hetch Hetchy. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., March 2016.