Fecal Matters

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

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.

The master plan was unquestionably the largest construction project in the history of San Francisco, and perhaps the most controversial. From the moment it began, the project took priority over everything else in the sewer system, including regular maintenance.

The federal government was paying for 75 percent of the project, and the state was kicking in 12.5 percent of capital costs, so any money the city devoted to the project was, essentially, multiplied by eight. Money began flowing like rainwater into the moat. The more moat the city built, the more federal money came in. Change orders mounted. Costs increased. The federal government eventually accused the city of "gold plating" the project, and at least one project manager was fired.

As years turned into decades, though, the government money fountain turned into a trickle. Government grants became loans. And San Francisco went into debt trying to finish the moat. Since 1989, the city has borrowed more than $230 million from the state. And the city has nearly $600 million in other debt taken out to fund sewer construction.

In the end, 25 years and nearly $1.6 billion after the Clean Water Master Plan started, San Francisco had a brand-new, modern sewage treatment plant near the ocean -- but it handled only 20 percent of the city's waste, while the renovated and enlarged, but smelly and outdated, Bayview plant continued to treat the other 80 percent. After 2 1/2 decades, the city also was surrounded by a covered moat, 25 feet wide and 35 feet deep, to catch most of the sewer overflow that used to go into the bay during significant rainfalls.

Although there still is not enough storage capacity to deal with all storm overflow, the clean water project was deemed a success. The project was meant to curb the dumping of untreated waste into the bay and the ocean; for the most part, San Francisco is in compliance with environmental standards. In fact, the Clean Water Master Plan has won national awards for its environmental genius.

But as the master plan was implemented, the city's sewers went to hell.

Most of San Francisco is familiar with sewer problems; Geoffrey Wood is intimate with them. A tall gentleman, for whom casual still qualifies as well-dressed, Wood makes commercial real estate deals happen from his office in Cow Hollow. He's lived or worked in a home at the corner of Baker and Filbert streets since 1977, the downstairs portion of which is now his office. Wood's neighborhood is "hydraulically inadequate," which means that when it rains, his office floods.

And, much like the manhole in front of Onnie's Cafe, the manhole in the intersection in front of Wood's office also floats atop a fountain of sewer water from time to time -- interrupted by loud crashes as the heavy metal disc slams back down on the street when the pressure subsides.

When he first moved in, the sewer back-pressure got so high sometimes that it threatened to blow his toilets off their bases. Wood replaced a valve, and that problem seemed to subside. But then the area flooded with water that backed out of filled sewer pipes. Wood plugged every crevice along the bottom of the house.

Then the sewer overflowed again, putting about 2 inches of standing sewer water in his office, ruining his files, and soaking his carpet. Wood figures he's spent about $4,500 in flood repairs, for which the city has refused reimbursement. And he's purchased a pump that sends water away from his home when the pipes begin to fill.

"They [city officials] are not addressing the problem," he says. "The sewer is not big enough to handle the sewage and the storm water."

A 1994 letter from Steven Medbery, chief of environmental regulation and management at the Department of Public Works, which handled sewers at the time, commented on the problem this way: "The Bureau of Engineering researched their records and determined that sewers in Baker Street leading north to the Marina have capacity limitations. These limitations will be addressed in future capital facilities planning."

That was four years ago. The "limitations" haven't changed.
Actually, though, Wood hasn't even begun to see real San Francisco sewer problems. Two weeks before Christmas of 1995, at about 2:30 in the morning, a sewer ate Howard and Iran Billman's three-story Tudor mansion in San Francisco's tony Sea Cliff neighborhood. Under pressure from storm water, the brick sewer, built in 1895, collapsed, and the Billman home crashed into the earth. More than 20 other homes were evacuated as the giant sinkhole grew like something from a science fiction movie; eventually it measured some 200 feet wide and 40 feet deep.

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