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Fecal Matters 

When it comes to sewers, San Francisco just can't get its shit together

Wednesday, Sep 23 1998
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The lunch rush is about to begin at Onnie's Cafe on Third and Kirkwood streets in the Bayview, and the proprietor is revved up. Onyx "Onnie" Walker is whirling around behind the counter, arguing about something about lettuce on the phone, even as he makes someone a sandwich, rings up another customer's order, and continues holding court on the subject of sewers.

"It's not El Nino," Walker says, hanging up the phone. "This happens every time it rains. Every year. I didn't realize what was going on, until I saw the rats."

Walker is describing this appetizing scenario: When it rains, the sewer pipes under Third Street back up. But they don't just back up. Runoff creates enough pressure in the undersized line that water blows up through the manhole in the intersection in front of Onnie's Cafe. It's a real-life version of a classic cartoon scene: Look -- it's a manhole cover, suspended on a 4-foot fountain of water surging up from the sewer! Every now and again, a wayward rat comes surfing out with the water and scurries past, as watery sewage flows down the street, right past the cafe and other businesses on this stretch of Third.

"Things were moving down the street, OK," Walker explains in a gingerly way that makes clear the things he's discussing are not pleasant. "And, kids play in the water. They just do.

"People know what's going on, and they stay away. We will never be a viable neighborhood until they clean up the sewer and waste-water plant."

Indeed, the Bayview's sewage problems aren't confined to the rainy season. Walker's cafe sits about three blocks from the city's Southeast Water Pollution Control Plant, which is the source of a permanent stink that hangs over the neighborhood. That odor is an unavoidable background. It's the smell of a bad taste in your mouth, or a sick headache. Imagine walking around with a rotten egg tied around your neck. After a while, you stop actively noticing the stench, but it's always there -- and if you leave the Bayview, and come back, it's as if someone stuffed the decaying egg in your mouth.

After decades of official neglect, Mayor Willie Brown ordered an emergency fix for the Third Street sewer earlier this month. Construction crews were about to begin work replacing the overburdened sewer line with a larger one, but this move prompted another crisis: Onnie's Cafe and neighboring businesses depend on drive-up customers, and the sewer construction severely limits parking and street access. In sum, the Third Street scenario illustrates how things have worked -- or, rather, failed to work -- under the streets of San Francisco. For decades now, the city has jumped from one sewer emergency to the next, ameliorating some local problems and causing some others, without ever fixing the system as a whole.

Oddly, the sewer problem hasn't seemingly been accompanied by a money problem.

During the past quarter of a century, government officials have spent more than $1.5 billion on one drainage project that reduced the amount of sewage going into the bay, but did very little for the aging sewer system itself, which continues to be plagued by collapsing structures, insufficient capacity, a smelly, outdated treatment plant, and hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. In fact, that huge drainage project sucked up much of the money that might otherwise have been used to maintain the city's crumbling sewers.

San Francisco, it seems, just cannot get its shit together.

San Francisco's sewers have been cursed since the first pipe was laid. When city fathers began to build sewers, they created what is known as a combined system; that is to say, only one set of pipes was built. In most cities, storm sewers and waste-water sewers are separate. Here, however, runoff from streets and rooftops goes into the same pipes that move sewage from sinks and toilets to the treatment plant. The combined system -- the only one like it in California -- ensures that the sewers will back up when it rains more than a sprinkle. There simply is not room for all the water in the pipes.

To limit the backups, for nearly a century when it rained San Francisco sent the excess sewage water -- most of it untreated -- into the ocean and the bay, and didn't really think much about it.

Several things happened in the early 1970s that would permanently reshape the city's sewer system. The most important was that Congress passed the Clean Water Act. The new law required cities to treat waste more completely and strictly limited the amount of untreated overflow that was allowed to spill into the public waterways. And, initially at least, the federal government provided grants so cities could improve their treatment systems.

But San Francisco was not about to re-plumb every house and building -- and dig up almost every street -- to separate the storm and waste-water systems. So city engineers began running drainage scenarios through an IBM mainframe computer in the basement of City Hall, calculating rainfall and overflow. Soon, the city officials were forced to move those scenarios from the realm of theory into the real world.

The Regional Water Quality Control Board, an arm of the state Water Resources Control Board, banned any new sewer connections in San Francisco until its substandard sewage treatment facilities were improved. The ban effectively halted new construction in San Francisco, placing enormous political and economic pressure on the city government. (In fact, through the years, the board would issue a second building ban and at least 10 cease and desist orders based on the city's failure to comply with pollution laws.)

So the engineers came up from the basement with something called the Clean Water Master Plan. The city would build a giant underground gutter -- commonly called "the moat" -- around the periphery of San Francisco, to catch all of the sewage and water that would otherwise flow into the bay when it rained. The city would also build a brand-new, modern waste-water treatment facility at Ocean Beach near the zoo, replacing a 35-year-old plant in the Richmond District. And it would significantly expand the southeast treatment facility in the Bayview, so it could handle all of the sewage on the east side of the city.

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Lisa Davis

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