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San Francisco Public Utilities Commission's Betsy Rhodes, left, and Carla Schultheis are photographed with the Sunol Water Temple designed by architect Willis Polk and completed in 1910 in Sunol on Sep. 7, 2012. The SFPUC has started work on a proposal to spend $3 million to $4.5 million on building a visitor and interpretive center at the site.

SUNOL -- A graceful century-old temple that has been a hidden treasure may finally get its star turn.

San Francisco's water system proposes a new visitor and natural education center to make the little-used Sunol Water Temple area a popular destination to enjoy and learn about nature, water and wildlife.

Facing criticism for decades that it offers little public access to its 36,000 acres of reservoir and creek buffer lands in Alameda and San Mateo counties, the San Francisco water system is considering spending from $3 million to $4.5 million on the new center in Sunol.

Water managers and Sunol community leaders have come up with a plan for a community conference hall, a science lab for teaching students and a 2,000-square-foot natural history exhibit hall. The two-year project would start in 2014 if it gets funding approval from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

Also as part of the project, the San Francisco PUC would reopen a long closed picnic area in a sycamore tree grove there and create outdoor classrooms with native plants.

Some Sunol residents are stoked. They say the changes would be a dramatic improvement in the San Francisco PUC's poor record of providing public access on the watershed lands it uses to collect, store and deliver tap water to some 2.6 million Bay Area residents.

"This would represent a big step in opening up access to the Sunol Water Temple," said Erv Tiessen, a Sunol resident who has attended public meetings on the plan. "This will restore the water temple to what it was around the turn of the last century, when it was a destination place for people to come to and picnic."

Tiessen is also pleased that San Francisco officials are interested in using the center as a hub for proposed new regional trail links to connect the temple to the Vargas Plateau, Sunol and Pleasanton Ridge regional parks.

Those trail links may be years off, but San Francisco officials are warm to the idea, said Betsy Laupee Rhodes, San Francisco PUC's coordinator for citizen involvement.

The new visitor center would be located just east of the water temple, an eye catching 60-foot-tall dome supported by Corinthian columns. Gravity fed creek water loudly cascades through tile basins at the bottom.

The privately owned Spring Valley Water Co. built the temple in 1910 as a monument to the potential of water projects to transform the landscape with cities and farms.

San Francisco bought up the private water company and the water temple in 1930 to acquire Alameda Creek water rights and to ship Hetch Hetchy water across the land to San Francisco and other Bay Area communities.

These days, public access to the water temple is limited to 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays. The temple is closed weekends, when the public is most apt to visit. A temple sign warns visitors that parking is limited to 30 minutes.

Ironically, the water temple area has no water fountain or faucet for visitors to drink from even though a big inscription on the temple quotes the Bible as saying, "I will make wilderness a pool of water and the dry lands springs of water."

San Francisco PUC employees say they want to make the water temple a welcoming place to showcase the water system and its relationship to the local environment.

"This is a hub for us," said Tim Ramirez, the San Francisco PUC's director of natural resources and land management. "We want it to be a hub for the community."

Ramirez said his agency is strongly considering opening the water temple on weekends so the public can enjoy the planned center.

The learning lab, he said, will give visiting students a chance to "roll up their sleeves and work with their hands" to study natural sciences.

The visitor center is is part of much larger $30 million project to rebuild a water agency corporation yard near the temple, he added.

Before the project can begin, San Francisco PUC employees must flesh out details of the plan, pin down costs, and get budget approval from the Public Utilities Commission.

Sunol resident Robb Marshall -- who takes daily walks to the water temple -- said the new visitor center would be a boon to his small bucolic town. "I think it will be a wonderful draw," he said.

Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.

water temple plans

To view information, go to the San Francisco PUC website at sfwater.org, and click on community, explore and then Sunol Water Temple and Grounds Restoration