Hair and other Hetch Hetchy hyperbole - now backfiring

Hair and other Hetch Hetchy hyperbole

backfiring in the 21st century




Nelson A. Eckart, general manager of the San Francisco water system in 1934, touted Hetch Hetchy water as a miracle hair treatment. He claimed the water would beautify and add sparkle to the hair of San Francisco women. In addition, housewives would benefit because the soft water would cut soap bills and whiten the family linen. 

San Francisco officials have hyped the City’s water quality for more than a century, using it to justify damming an iconic landscape in Yosemite National Park. That hype may be coming back to bite them as the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission seeks to diversify its water system.

To be fair, the water quality is good. But it will continue to be good when Hetch Hetchy Valley is returned to its natural splendor.

While many of us think of Hetch Hetchy as a valley waiting to be reborn, the term “Hetch Hetchy” is often used as a moniker for San Francisco’s water system, or for the water itself. Officials have often bragged that the water is so pure its doesn’t require filtration (though it is treated with a combination of chlorine, ammonia and ultraviolet light to ensure pathogens are eliminated).

As a result, a handful of customers will always complain whenever there is a change in San Francisco’s Regional Water System. In 2017, when the PUC announced its plan to add groundwater to supplies on the western side of San Francisco (see below), the SF Chronicle published a story about the concerns of bagel makers and coffee roasters (brewers provided mixed reactions). Christopher Hendon, the MIT chemist interviewed for the story noted that several food-centric cities, especially when it’s soft, such as Melbourne, Australia, and Kyoto, Japan, as well as New York, identify strongly with their water and dryly opined that “San Francisco’s water is not particularly special.” 




Modern-day entrepreneurs continue to use "Hetch Hetchy" as a marketing tool,. They tell prospective customers their "Best Dam Vodka" is gluten-free and is distilled six times.





More recently, the PUC, following the lead of other California water agencies, is considering recycling wastewater for potable use. Staff is excited about the idea – in part because recycled water is a “drought-proof” supply. But they’ve found they need to reeducate some customers who want no changes to their pure “Hetch Hetchy” water.

It’s time for a bit of education and to change the narrative. San Francisco’s Regional Water System is not and has never been entirely derived from the Tuolumne River (where Hetch Hetchy is). The system receives about 15% of its supply from watersheds in Alameda and San Mateo Counties. And about 30% of its overall supply is filtered at the PUC’s Sunol and Harry Tracy Water Treatment Plants 

What’s more, at the time of the 2017 Chronicle article and again for six weeks in 2019, no Tuolumne River water was flowing to the Bay Area. The system's Mountain Tunnel was shut down for repairs and the PUC was supplying customers entirely from Bay Area reservoirs. Does anyone even notice a difference in the water when San Francisco switches its primary source?

Restore Hetch Hetchy is committed to protecting water quality as well as to replacing every last drop of San Francisco’s supply as part of a restoration plan. We are pleased to see that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is also now involved in educating its customers that its water system is not all about “Hetch Hetchy”.