This fabulous poster map is San Francisco cartoonist Phil Frank’s depiction of the Hetch Hetchy Water System, which supplies large parts of the Bay Area with fresh potable water. The whimsical style of his artwork is enticing and fun, but more importantly, it captures the astounding feat of engineering that essentially constitutes San Francisco’s lifeline.
We see how water accumulates in three large reservoirs in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the oldest of them being the flooded Hetch Hetchy Valley, which gave the system its name. The mountain reservoirs guarantee a controlled water distribution through a gravity-based system that extends across the San Joaquim River, into Fremont – home of the iconic Sunol Water Temple – and across the lower Bay to Palo Alto, where the Pulgas Water Temple is found. From here, it travels north up the peninsula to San Francisco itself. Supportive reservoirs are situated near San Antonio, at Don Pedro, and in Calaveras.
In addition to the charming landscape, filled with humorous details throughout, the map includes all of the major infrastructure points that make the system work, such as dams, hydro plants (power stations), pipelines, and water towers. San Francisco itself figures prominently in the upper left corner, but this is a map of the city’s important hinterland: the region that sustains the cosmopolitan cityscapes surrounding the Bay.
Phil Frank’s map is a wonderful amalgamation of landscape mapping, satirical illustration, and engineering blueprint. It is exciting for anyone interested in hydrological technology but an absolute must-have for collectors focussing on the history of San Francisco, California’s National Parks, and the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The Hetch Hetchy Water System in technical terms
The map itself includes a small text box in the lower right corner, which supplies with an excellent introduction to the infrastructural significance of the Hetch Hetchy Water System:
“Overseen by the San Francisco Public Utitlieities Commission, the Hetch Hetchy Water System provides water to 31 water agencies in the Bay Area. The Largest of these agencies is the San Francisco Water Department.
The system has provided up to 300 gallons of water per day to 2.3 million people in the counties of San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo and Alameda. The City of San Francisco uses approximately 30% of this water – 70 to 80 million gallos per day.
The system was built by the City of San Francisco between 1913-1934. Considered a great engineering feat, the water is moved only by gravity 150 from a reservoir in the Sierra Nevada mountains into San Francisco.”
The history, necessity, and technical complexity of the Hetch Hetchy Water System are further expounded on the verso of the map, which is a series of text boxes and simple graphs that instructs viewers how to read the map and provides the necessary historical and technical context to appreciate it truly.
A contentious but necessary project
In 1914, construction began on one of Northern California’s most significant engineering projects. Following a long and vigorous debate, in which John Muir personally appealed to Theodore Roosevelt to abandon the plans, the valley of Hetch Hetchy was chosen as the most ideal site for a reservoir that could supply the Bay Area – and San Francisco in particular – with the necessary water supply to sustain its continued growth.
While there was a consensus that a reservoir was necessary, the decision to use the Hetch Hetchy Valley as the location sparked such heated debate. The Sierra Nevada mountains, and Yosemite in particular, have always been celebrated for their astounding natural beauty. Nevertheless, until the 20th century, little compared to the small Hetch Hetchy Valley in natural beauty and diversity. Even though we have to rely on century-old descriptions and photographs, it is clear that Hetch Hetchy was one of the world’s most pristine and gorgeous natural landscapes. Its champion, John Muir, fought vigorously to have it declared a national park and preserved for posterity.
Even though Hetch Hetchy was sacrificed in the name of progress, it would soon prove insufficient for the Bay Area’s needs. Over the coming decades, the system was expanded to include additional mountain reservoirs in the Lake Lloyd and Lake Eleanor Reservoirs.