The Keeper of the Waters
An Interview with Gayle Ciardi
Gayle Ciardi, a watershed keeper for the San Francisco Public Utilities District, was the first woman to hold that post. Here, she presides over a herd of goats that help control flammable brush.
Photo by Tim Sullivan.
Gayle Ciardi grew up living just south of San Francisco in a 23,000-acre wilderness, where Crystal Springs and adjacent reservoirs along Highway 280 hold drinking water for 2.4 million people. As a fourth-generation watershed keeper, Ciardi helps protect the reservoirs and the land around them. She traveled for years with her father in his truck, checking meters, confronting trespassers, and learning about all the local wildlife. When she applied for the job herself in 1982, she was told there were no women watershed keepers. But she persisted, eventually convincing the managers at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) that she could do the job.
BN: What is a watershed keeper?
GC: Our main job is reservoir security and in the summer, fire safety. On a normal morning, I’ll measure the flow and pressure in the big pipes—several million gallons a day—that come down from Hetch Hetchy in the Sierra. I also check the lakes for depth. In terms of routine patrol, we look for trespassers; the sensitive areas of the watershed are mostly closed to the public. Public trails along the edges of the watershed are maintained by San Mateo County Parks. This is also a state fish and game refuge. So my job also includes keeping the wild animals safe and happy.
BN: How long has your family lived on this land?
GC: My great-great-uncle worked for Spring Valley Water Company, the original private owner of the watershed lands, and my grandfather worked for Spring Valley and then for San Francisco Water. My father was raised on San Andreas Lake and lived here until he went into the army, then came back to be a watershed keeper for 35 years. I was raised on this land too. Seven watershed keepers live here in houses dotted over the 23,000 acres. These people know the land; they know who the trespassers are. At home, I’m looking out the windows 24/7 especially in the summer, watching for smoke.
BN: Why didn’t you take no for an answer when you applied for the job in 1982?
GC: It’s what I wanted to do all my life. Patrolling with my dad, I knew the whole job. I went to college and was a medical assistant for 10 years. One day I was up at Crater Lake (in Oregon) and there was a lady ranger. And I said, “I can do it!” The watershed administrators knew my family background. But I said, “Don’t tell my father that I’m applying for this.” I’m very proud of the fact I got it on my own merits.
BN: How do you deal with trespassers?
GC: Signs all over say you’re not supposed to be in here. I usually give a warning to trespassers but ticket fishermen and hunters. If they get an attitude, I give them a trespass violation and they have to go before a judge and pay a fine that could be $250 or higher.
My biggest concern is fire safety, especially when it comes to the marijuana groves. When we find them, we call in swat teams to go into the camps and get the people out. Then we go in and clean out the camps and cut down the plants, as many as 4,000 of them sometimes.
BN: How do the growers get such a foothold in the preserve?
GC: This place is so thick with trees and underbrush, you could hide 25 elephants in there. We patrol off-road and see their belly trails to get to their plants. They also bring in miles of flat black hosing to water their plants and propane tanks for cooking. How could they not start a fire? We keep watch on where they are; then, right at harvest time, we go and get them.
BN: What animals here do you enjoy seeing?
GC: I saw twin baby bobcats the other day. At Christmas the bald eagles come in, a nesting pair. My favorite little birds are the killdeers.
BN: Can you stay here after you retire?
GC: When I’m ready, I’ll retire and move. I was born and raised here and hate to leave it. But I don’t have children, so there won’t be another Bottimore-Ciardi generation.
BN: What kind of changes do you anticipate here?
GC: I’m afraid of fishing being allowed in the lakes. The health of the watershed depends on maintaining a balance. More people here would mean more trash, more fire hazard, and habitat destruction. Thank God for the City of San Francisco buying this in the 1930s. This could be all populated, just like the Peninsula. We have to save this for our children’s children’s children.