Continuing San Francisco’s Infrastructure Wars: The Sewer Master Plan

by Alex Lantsberg, Alliance for a Clean Waterfront on March 15, 2006

On March 8, 2006 CounterPULSE presented “Infrastructure Wars: Sustainable Movements,” a discussion of the political battles over the decisions to define how we live here…3021. Fights over water – how we get it and use it, and then collect, transport, treat, and dispose of it – have been a staple of San Francisco’s history. With the start of the San Francisco Sewer System Master Plan Project, a flyer about which went out to every address in the City, local residents are once again approaching a decision point. This time the choice is between the high road of environmental justice, sustainability and the emerging green economy, or the heavily engineered ‘pump & dump’ approach that has defined the City’s sewage and stormwater management practices since its settlement by Europeans. The Alliance for a Clean Waterfront http://www.sfcleanwaterfront is leading the effort to make sure we take the right path and will present the Master Plan’s threats and opportunities on Tuesday March 21st at the Library’s Park Branch.

Although named the “SF Sewer System Project,” this planning effort deals with all of our wastewater – stormwater runoff as well as the “used” water that drains out of our residential and commercial sinks, toilets, showers, washing machines, etc. Today stormwater and sewage are considered waste to be made invisible, quickly pumped somewhere for treatment, then dumped. The resulting wastewater system places 80% of San Francisco’s sewage treatment burden–and its accompanying problems and stigma–in the already mistreated Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood. During rains, the water that falls on the streets is quickly routed down storm drains and towards the City’s treatment facilities. Under normal circumstances the stormwater and sewage are treated, then discharged 800 feet offshore into San Francisco Bay and into an ‘exemption zone’ in the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary four-and-a-half miles into the Pacific Ocean.

Rains overwhelm the system between ten and twenty times every year, resulting in neighborhood flooding and annual overflows of more than a billion gallons of minimally treated combined sewage and stormwater along our waterfront. Since the rains are diverted into pipes instead of being absorbed into the ground, the west side aquifer that supports Lake Merced and Pine Lake is starved of water.
The high road views the water we use and that falls on our city as a resource that is too good to waste. The Master Plan process provides San Franciscans with a once in a generation opportunity to put that idea into practice through a range of innovative technologies, design techniques, and ‘out of the pipe’ thinking.

Just a few of the possibilities can include: compact facilities to treat our ‘wastewater’ closer to where it is first generated and where it can be reused rather than all in one community; neighborhood greening efforts that transform our streets, parks, and schoolyards into a network of green healthy corridors that are vital parts of our drainage system; and stormwater harvesting on private property through green roofs, cisterns, and permeable surfaces. Perhaps most important, the high road not only creates jobs for the skilled trade workers who will rebuild and upgrade the system, but also opportunities for training and employment for younger and lower skilled workers to maintain our green infrastructure. Some Public Utilities Commission staff have embraced these alternatives, but they will need public support in order to overcome the institutional bias towards the status quo.

The Alliance for a Clean Waterfront is a coalition of San Francisco environmental, neighborhood, and community organizations working to put the Sewer Master Plan on the high road. On Tuesday March 21st at 6:00 pm, the Alliance will present a discussion at the Library’s Park Branch (1833 Page St.) about the Master Plan’s opportunities to redefine our City’s approach to water management, as well as its threat to the Bay, Ocean, and neighborhoods. The City will hold the first series of Sewer Master Plan workshops will on Thursday March 23rd at the Sunset Recreation Center, Saturday March 25th at the Southeast Community Facility, and Monday March 27th at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. All are encouraged to come to the library on Tuesday March 21st to learn more about the choices we face and then attend one of the three workshops to make sure we make the right ones.
Alex Lantsberg is co-chair of the Alliance for a Clean Waterfront and the chair of the Public Utilities Commission’s Citizens Advisory Committee.
?For more information contact him at Lantsberg (at) or (415) 794-2539

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