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Water Temple a monument to engineering marvel | Bartell's Backroads

A monument to one of California's most valuable resources and the brilliant way it's delivered to a thirsty city of millions

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — Hiding on a hilltop in a small forest is a Parthenon style monument surrounded by a well manicured lawn and a pool of mountain fresh drinking water. No, it's not a relic from ancient Greece; it’s the San Francisco Bay area’s Pulgas Water Temple.

Whether you’re behind the lavender garden or in front of the pillars, it's hard to take a bad picture here. The Pulgas Water Temple is just a few miles from Redwood City in San Mateo County, but this backdrop wasn’t built for social media influencers out for a quick selfie.

“It was a temple to celebrate water coming down from the Sierra,” said Steven Ritchie. 

He oversees water system operations for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The water flowing out of the Pulgas Water temple is drinking water headed to Bay Area homes and businesses.

“We serve about 2.7 million people here in the Bay Area,” said Ritchie.

The Greco-Roman style water temple was built in 1938 as an ornate marker for the end of the water system. It's a system transporting water from Yosemite National Park all the way to the Bay Area. 

“That’s by gravity all the way. There is not a pump in the system to bring it here,” said Ritchie.

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After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, many homes burned to the ground because there was a lack of water and this prompted city leaders to find a reliable water source. That source became the Tuolumne River in Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley, but first the O’Shaughnessy Dam needed to be built to store the water.

“It's named for Michael O’Shaughnessy and he was the brains behind this whole water system,” said Ritchie.

O’Shaughnessy was a brilliant Irish civil engineer who spent the last 20 years of his life building what became the Hetch Hetchy water system. The design takes water more than 160 miles over hills, through the San Joaquin Valley and under the bay.

“The water was delivered here in October 1934. He died two weeks before it showed up,” said Ritchie.

People from all over came to see the first flow of water out to the water temple, but if you look at pictures from 1934, you may notice it’s not the same temple standing today.

“The reservoir is a quarter-mile behind the one that stands today. They built a fake one just to celebrate the water coming to San Francisco,” said Ritchie.

The original water temple was not in a very accessible spot, so four years later the existing Pulgas Water Temple and park were built on Cañada Road in Redwood City.

“This is merely a decorative water pool,” said Ritchie.

Today, San Francisco Water, Power and Sewer is the third largest water provider in California, and you can see the water from the Temple as it makes its way to homes and businesses. The park is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

MORE WET AND WILD ADVENTURES ON THE BACKROADS:  Going with the flow. How California's water planners keep taps flowing and farms growing.

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