Crystal Springs Watershed

Fire Hazard Severity Reduction & Integrated Vegetation Management on the Crystal Springs Watershed


The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) provides water for 2.4 million people in San Francisco and portions of San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Alameda counties. Approximately 85 percent of this water originates in the snow- capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, and about 15 percent is collected from local rainfall in the East Bay and the San Francisco Peninsula. Through a complex system of pipelines, pumping stations and treatment facilities the water is collected, treated, and transported to surrounding Bay Area communities. The SFPUC is the wholesaler to 29 water agencies in Alameda, Santa Clara, and San Mateo County. These agencies are members of the Bay Area Water Users Association.

A portion of the water transported from the Sierras, as well as the water collected from local rainfall is stored in three reservoirs located on the San Francisco Peninsula in San Mateo County. The Peninsula Watershed includes three reservoirs and their respective sub watersheds: San Andreas Reservoir, Upper and Lower Crystal Springs Reservoir, and Pilarcitos Reservoir. The Peninsula Watershed encompasses 23,000 acres and is a unique natural resource located in a predominately-urbanized region.

Land uses:

In addition to their primary uses for water collection, water storage, and water quality protection, the Peninsula Watershed lands serve as a State Fish and Game Refuge and its 800 species of plants, 50 species of mammals,165 species of birds 30 species of reptiles and amphibians, many species of fish and hundreds of species of insects have earned it recognition by UNESCO as a International Biosphere Reserve. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has designated it as a High Fire Hazard Severity Zone. Recreational activities are allowed including 7 trails, a Golf Course, Pulgas Water Temple, 3 Interstate highways, 3 rest stops and Filoli Gardens.

The Partnership:

The San Francisco Water Department (SFWD) and San Mateo County Firesafe (Firesafe) have a long partnership history. The 13-year partnership shows the commitment and dedication of both organizations to maintaining the quality of life and property for the citizens living in the Wildland/urban intermix zones (I- Zone) of San Mateo County. It is through this cooperative effort that we can achieve effective fire prevention, fuel reduction, community education and pre fire planning. In addition, the SFWD is committed to managing the natural resources to ensure that water quality and sediment reduction are achieved. A catastrophic fire in a sensitive area would reduce water quality, increase sediment load in the reservoirs, reduce storage capacity, and create a potential filtration problem. Strategically constructed Community Fuel breaks not only protect our adjacent neighbors from a fire originating within the Watershed and traveling outside of our perimeter but also protect from a fire originating outside the Watershed and doing extensive damage to the resource and water quality. By utilizing a long term strategy to reduce fuel loads to achieve fire hazard reduction and protection of sensitive rare and endangered species is our primary goal. This is achieved through a matrix of programs including annual fireguarding, fuel modification, pre fire engineering water supplies, regrowth management, monitoring, mapping, training and education


The integration of vegetation management techniques is essential to any program involved in fuels management. The key is to have the proper site specific prescription which is specific to your goal based on anticipated fire behavior, human assets at risk , flora /fauna present, conservation of habitat and protection of ecosystem values. There is not one technique, which will work in all situations and can even fluctuate from year to year based on environmental criteria. We are all aware of the potential problems with herbicide resistance, exotic species invasions, erosion and habitat degradation. By employing and integrated approach many of these pitfalls can be avoided.

Annual fireguarding:

The techniques used for this practice vary from using heavy equipment to string trimmers. The fuel involved is mainly annual grasses and herbs which are fine and flashy. The eastern fuelbreak is a community fuelbreak which begins on the eastern perimeter of the Watershed in the vicinity of Crestview Drive, Redwood City in the South to San Bruno Avenue, San Bruno in the North. This fuelbreak is partially disced and partially mowed. Roadside annual mowing is done using offset rear mowers and retractable side arm mowers. Labor crews and seasonal Watershed Workers use push mowers and string trimmers to do fence lines, gates, and tight spots. The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office offers valuable resources through its Firesafe Program at La Honda and also the weekend Furlough Work Program. This work is done in compliance with Public Resource Code 4291. Herbicides play a minor but important role in our program. Our nationally renowned Integrated Pest Management program only uses least toxic materials at minimal application levels and used only where other methods will not be effective. Cost savings of economic poisons is not one of our measures of effectiveness. This year we were fortunate to have a herd of 400 goats treating the vegetation on our Edgewood Road right of Way in Redwood City. (see goats at

Fuel Modification:

This is the management of our woody vegetation along roadsides and our fuelbreaks to the North, South and West. The majority of this vegetation can be classified as woody, perennial to biennial , shrubs and forbs. The goal is to modify the vertical and horizontal spacing of the brush so that the behavior of the fire will be altered when it reaches the fuelbreak or roadside edge. Our goal is to treat older, decadent brush first and within a time interval. Included in this arsenal of equipment is our Brontosaurus hammer knife 42" mowing head on a 28 foot articulating boom. This allows for refined manipulation of coastal shrub and chaparral into a natural appearing fuelbreak. By utilizing scallops, undulations and islands this can be blended into an extremely non-intrusive, aesthically pleasing landscape. Our rubber tired Tiger mower with articulating 14-foot boom is used to do roadside edge. Our rear flail mowers are used to do less punishing work on "flatter" ground and smaller material. Premow assessment inventories are conducted for presence/absence surveys of rare and endangered plants and animals and also to establish baseline data which will be compare to our successive post mow assessments. ( see monitoring section) In cooperation with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Vegetation Management burns will be conducted to augment our Western fuelbreak and also to perform grassland enhancement on native prairies .

We utilize tree crews from the Recreation and Park Department in San Francisco to perform arboricultural work to minimize hazard trees , abate dead trees ( keeping snags in select areas), field pruning and ladder fuel reduction. The San Mateo Firesafe program greatly assists in this endeavor and is not only instrumental to the success of this program but our goals could not be achieved without their help. I would like to thank Deputies Jim Farrell and Bob Gerbi under the supervision of Lt. Zirelli and Sheriff Horsley for their commitment to this program and the citizens of San Mateo County. In difficult access and arduous terrain areas the Firesafe crews and our Watershed Keepers cut and stack brush for winter pile burning. A key component to our fuel modification program is also the installation of Safety Zones. The safety zone is an area which has been cleared of woody vegetation and is located in a strategic location to facilitate firefighter safety, evacuations, helispots and incident command posts if needed. Our exotic invasive control program allows us to remove exotic vegetation such as gorse, brooms, thistles, and pampas grass while achieving the dual benefit of fuel reduction and habitat enhancement.

Pre- fire water source improvements:

In addition to having reservoirs for fire response personnel to draft from we are in the process of increasing our water storage capabilities in the form of tanks and hydrant manifold improvements. We have replaced 250-gallon tanks with 150000 tanks and have located the hydrants with better accessibility in mind. These tanks are located in strategic locations and receive their source from local springs. Standardization of all fittings and upgrades are fundamental to this program. Although we move a lot of water, getting to it is difficult. Through much needed improvements this is rather helpful. Also the implementation of Fire Caches is critical. Additional hoses, tools and supplies are housed for emergency response. Also we are in the process of upgrading our communications system for peak effectiveness. Our remote accessing weather stations continue to add to the information available to the fire response community for very localized weather conditions contributing to fire weather alerts and conditions.

Regrowth management:

Several studies are being conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of management techniques. We are testing different control methods, timing, regrowth rates and species composition post treatment. A scientific, statistically valid study is underway at Spring Valley Ridge and the result of the three year trials will be completed soon with plans for continuation to a 5-year study phase. The Bunker Hill Test plots allowed professionals to evaluate treatment techniques including herbicide use and chips as mulch. The Edgewood goat project is using detailed pre treatment inventories and extensive photo points to determine the effectiveness of using herbivores in fuels management. Detailed post fire inventories will also be conducted to determine species succession in post burned areas.

Monitoring and mapping:

Implementation and utilization of GIS into day-to-day operations is a goal which we are beginning to achieve. As GIS staff and field practioners learn of the others professions and respective needs great results are being identified. Vegetation mapping, species mapping, fuel modeling and fire hazard severity zone mapping all are key factors in this program. For a program to be successful the components as well as the overall program has to be monitored for success and in stream changes need to be made to reflect the documented observations. Our monitoring ranges from gross field observations to photo point documentation to extensive on your knees line and point transects. Collection, storage and retrievability of this information is monumental and has to be in concert with a well managed GIS component. This has been critical with the lab confirmed finding of Sudden Oak Death on the Watershed

Training and education:

We are constantly better equipping our personnel with tools and knowledge to better their personal skill level and to improve safety and safety awareness. The areas of significant improvement have been in field monitoring , species identification, biology of rare and endangered flora/fauna, personal safety and team building. Education of the public is conducted through various workshops, improved signage, community meetings and web sites. Various training is also provided to easement holders and lessees such as PG&E and contractors who will be working on the Watershed. The new guide to working on the Watershed will be out soon.

As Forester for the San Francisco Water Department and as President of Fire Safe San Mateo, it is a pleasure and opportunity to serve the citizens of San Mateo County. The spirit of cooperation amongst the various member agencies is truly one which should serve as a model for "new Firesafe groups" and "old Firesafe groups which need a spark."  The key to Firesafe Program success is leadership through perseverance, example, and diligence.

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Respectfully submitted by:

Guido Ciardi, Forester

San Francisco Water Department

Crystal Springs Watershed

tel:    650-342-5500

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