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San Francisco to Market Its Yosemite Connection

March 15, 2003|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Proving that civic pride can trickle down even to the water we drink, San Francisco is set to turn the tap on a plan to bottle its most liquid asset.

On Friday, word leaked that the city's public utility commission plans to sell bottled water from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park, the municipality's principal source of drinking water for nearly 70 years.

Officials in San Francisco, a city better known for cable cars, fog and food, are testing plans to market half-liter bottles at the international airport, the convention center, the zoo and other civic spots frequented by tourists.

Dubbed "Hetch Hetchy Mountain Water," it could go on sale for $1.25 a bottle by the end of the month. But the hope is less to make money than to promote the city. San Francisco utility officials boast that they produce perhaps the nation's best drinking water. Patricia E. Martel, the commission's general manager, said the bottling scheme is "intended to show our pride in San Francisco and our water."

At the source, high in the Sierra Nevada, the water is stupendous, said Holly Bundock, a National Park Service spokeswoman and San Francisco resident.

On hikes in the Sierra, Bundock has filled her canteen right below the snowy source of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, along the Tuolumne River. Construction on the dam began in 1915 over the protests of conservationists. "It's very fresh, very quenching," she said. Utility officials are still completing plans for marketing. A few weeks ago, 5,000 gallons of Hetch Hetchy water were trucked to a bottling plant in Sacramento, filtered and treated with ozone, then poured into more than 30,000 plastic bottles.

To some bottled water snobs, such treatment is blasphemy. They prefer water bottled right at the source. Moreover, San Francisco already has been beaten to the punch, said Jeff Dunn, water master at www. bottledwaterstore.com, an Internet distributor of unusual bottled waters.

"Dare County in North Carolina bottles its water, and a few others as well," he said.

As for San Francisco's brand, Dunn said he won't bother including it in his inventory. "In terms of competing with the world's high-quality water," he said, "I think bottled water aficionados are going to go for a French, a Belgian, an Alaskan, an Italian before they'd reach for something from San Francisco."

San Francisco has competition from, of all places, Southern California. In the just completed international water taste test conducted each year in Berkeley Spring, W.Va., the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California came in second place behind Montpelier, Ohio. Desert Hot Springs finished third.

A few environmentalists admit to being bugged by San Francisco's bottling plans. Some gripe about the potential of truck traffic on the north side of Yosemite, location of the Hetch Hetchy Dam. Others voice a more philosophical complaint.

"The symbolism of it bothers me the most," said Jay Watson of the California Wilderness Society. "It smacks of government commercializing what's fast becoming one of our most precious resources."

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