A Walking Tour of San Francisco's Hidden Waters

Gary Kamiya | March 28, 2014 | Lifestyle Story City Life

The first time that I saw Lobos Creek, the last significant stream in San Francisco, meandering through an overgrown ravine north of Lake Street, it felt too good to be true. Big cities have big rivers like the Thames and the Seine flowing through them, but they don’t have streams or springs. A muddy trickle in a park, maybe—but natural, free-flowing water in the heart of the asphalt jungle? That’s like finding a door to Narnia in a used-car lot.

Which may explain why three otherwise respectable citizens—Joel Pomerantz, Christopher Richard, and Greg Braswell—are obsessed to the point of mania with finding every last drop of natural water that bubbles, or once bubbled, out of the earth in San Francisco. So well versed are these three men in hydrology, historical ecology, and mapping that it’s hard to know who is the most formidable human dowser. Pomerantz, who gives fascinating Thinkwalk tours, is a San Francisco water historian who seems to know every rivulet and trickle that ever flowed in the city. Richard, the former curator of aquatic biology at the Oakland Museum of California, cocreated the authoritative Creek and Watershed Map of San Francisco. And Braswell is a sewer historian with the city’s Department of Public Works who knows what’s under every manhole cover in town.

But those are just titles. In reality, these guys are urban Huck Finns, and sleuthing out hidden city waters is their way of lighting out for the territory. I went out with Pomerantz and Richard on two daylong field trips in search of San Francisco’s secret waters, joined on the first day by Braswell and on the second by author, Critical Mass cofounder, and all-around font of San Francisco knowledge Chris Carlsson. What we found was a revelatory number of still-running streams, creeks, and springs coursing beneath the city’s feet. Some of these are not found on any map, but they exist as surely, and divinely, as the hills.

1. Dragonfly Creek
The people who named this waterway mistook damselflies for dragonflies, so it really should be called Damselfly Creek. It’s a lovely, open stream just south of the Presidio nursery that burbles merrily for several hundred yards before disappearing into a culvert.

2. Holy Cow Springs
The small fountain in the courtyard of the lovely Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, at Union and Steiner, is fed by one of the springs that was used by 19th-century Cow Hollow dairies and industry.

3. Lobos Creek
The largest stream in San Francisco, it flows from near Mountain Lake to Baker Beach. In the 19th century, its valley was renowned for a waterfall. In the streambed, archaeologists just found part of the old wooden flume that carried its water around Black Point (Fort Mason) to a Russian Hill reservoir—the city’s first major water system.

4. El Polin Spring
The crown jewel of San Francisco’s springs, it was used by the Ohlone and the Spanish, who believed that its waters promoted fertility. It is well restored, with stones marking the foundation of an 18th-century house.

5. Alta Plaza Springs
Water from springs that originate under Alta Plaza Park flows onto the sidewalk on Clay. These springs join underwater aquifers that feed “Hayes Creek,” groundwater that makes its way from the Western Addition through the Civic Center. It once emerged and fed into a marsh at 7th and Mission.

6. The Old Well
The owners say that the stunning lot behind their house, on Stanyan near 17th, is the largest backyard in San Francisco. The property features a picturesque 30-foot-deep well, one of very few remaining in the city. It’s fed by groundwater from adjacent Woodland Creek.

7. White Crane Springs
This pretty spring is located in a pleasant forest on the hill above 7th Avenue near Locksley.

8. Reservoir Springs
This small spring, in thick woods behind Sutro Reservoir, is the headwaters of Laguna Honda. A pipe once carried water from the lake under Haight Street to a reservoir where the Safeway at Church and Market now stands. Tiny Reservoir Street recalls that vanished site.

9. Double Springs
Under the elevated stretch of Market Street, right where it becomes Portola, is an impressively large spring. Two watersheds are located near here: one that fed Mission Creek and one that fed Precita Creek. (A short curved stretch of Capp Street is a remnant of old Serpentine Avenue, whose course traced Precita Creek.)

10. Islais Creek
This evocative stream, meandering through a sweet riparian corridor in stunning glen Canyon, is the last free-flowing remnant of what was once a major double-branch creek.

11. Trocadero Creek
At the bottom of a wooded hill behind Arden Wood, an elegant Christian Science retirement home near 15th and Wawona, is a flowing creek with a knee-deep pool. The creek used to flow through Stern Grove to the ocean, but sand dunes blocked it and created a lagoon—today’s little-known Pine Lake (aka Laguna Puerca).

12. Alemany Farm Springs
The northern slope of the beautiful community garden features a four-gallon-per-minute spring. Located next to the Alemany housing projects and Highway 280, it’s one of the great pieces of open terrain in the city.

13. Yosemite Marsh
This pleasant marsh lies in an obscure corner of McLaren Park.

Originally published in the April Issue of San Francisco.

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