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Sewers of Beauty

Forgetting about the infrastructure means new housing
with a flooded garage.
Photos by Kepa Askenasy

By Daniela Kirshenbaum and Kepa Askenasy

November 14, 2006

When waters rise in an urban center like San Francisco, citizens get a little uneasy. What's really in that water? And why is this "world-class city" flooding?

The lady just wants to cross the street. The bike messenger needs to get through the intersection. But the rain, the water, the floods! Why?

Where there were once bogs and sand dunes, we now have the city of San Francisco. And where we once had funky little creeks, we now have what is called "hardscape." That's what we call areas where former dirt lots and Bay shores are covered with concrete and asphalt, sidewalks and driveways.

Once, our less-than-pristine city surfaces absorbed wintry rainfalls. Not anymore. Nor do we have the sewer capacity. We are so heavily built with offices and housing and pavement - and toilets - that rain water has a hard time finding those little drains we call sewers.

When water does make it to the sewer pipes, it meets one of the more charming vestigial versions of sewers still extant in a major modern city: single pipelines. Single-line pipes easily fill to capacity with a single heavy rainfall, because the rainwater must share the pipelines with sewage. Most cities have two-line pipes, so that run-off from a heavy downpour doesn't compete with what's flushed down everyone's toilets.

None of this information is new. Studies have been conducted and reports disseminated for an awfully long time on urban development's increasing vulnerability to floods.

Our official entities, such as the San Francisco Planning Department, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, are all aware of how we're doing. A report card was issued last year by the American Society of Civil Engineers, grading our infrastructure. The City received a D+, with a strong trend towards F.

If we had parents, we would be grounded!
San Francisco heads towards infrastructure failure.

What can be done? Well, the Public Utilities Commission came up with Sandbag Saturdays. This is where less fortunate neighborhoods learn how to use their free sand bags to divert flooding sewer water away from their basements.

Pretty development on the outside;
but what might their sewer lines look like?

One more substantial solution is to require every new development - any building that wants drains and a toilet, anyway - to contribute impact fees towards rebuilding our antique sewers. Some sewer pipes are still made of clay, and many from cast iron. They crack easily, creating a city-wide sewage leachfield. That's something like dirty water percolating through coffee grounds, but on a far bigger, more disgusting scale.

The situation won't be easily fixed. No developer will enjoy paying for hidden assets like sewers. After all, customers are more impressed by granite countertops and solar panels than by spanking new sewer lines. In the meantime, inhabitants will heave sandbags in the winter.

Greg Scott, President of the Pacific Heights Residents Association, says he dreads every wet winter. He works for a large accounting firm downtown, and detests wading through the office lobby when the sewers back up. It's hard to blame him.


Creeks and waterways of the original San Francisco

San Francisco's trouble with creeks and sewage has been pretty common knowledge


Editor's Note: Views expressed by columnists published on FogCityJournal.com are not necessarily the views or beliefs of Fog City Journal. Fog City Journal supports free speech in all its varied forms and provides a forum for a complete spectrum of viewpoints.



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