Fecal Matters

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

Caen, widow of the city's most famous newspaper columnist, socialite extraordinaire, and chairwoman of the PUC, taps the gavel; the attending citizens sit in folding chairs. She thanks someone for "the very nice little dinner" served to the commission between meetings, and thanks someone else for the decorative plants behind the commission chairs. An Afro-Haitian dance troupe from the Hunters Point Youth Foundation is called upon to perform a couple of numbers.

Then it's time to talk sewage.
A couple of unlucky city staff members, armed with pointers and easels, tick off the projects that have been done, planned, and paid for ... and those that haven't. Most of the sewer plans in place were turned upside down by the passage of Proposition H earlier this year. The legislation capped the city's sewer service charge, effectively preventing San Francisco from using bond funds on new capital sewer projects -- even though voters had already approved the bonds. The staffers say they'd planned for $145 million in repairs, but only completed $55 million of them before Prop. H halted spending. In all, the city needs nearly $500 million to fix its inadequate and/or broken sewers. Where the money might come from is anybody's guess.

A staff member gives an update on the Bayview odor issue, and talks about adding the equivalent of household bleach to the works, which sets off neighbors, who are not pleased by the idea of adding more chemistry to their polluted world. But everyone celebrates the installation of a new water valve that will allow some people to actually shower and run water from the tap simultaneously.

With the staff report finished, Caen leans into the microphone, smiling nervously, her manicured fingernails pinching the papers in her hand. Clearly, she has something big to announce.

There are a lot of projects that need attention throughout the city, she explains. "Soooo ... don't tell anyone, but ... we're making this a priority," Caen gushes, with a wink and all the power and charm of someone who's juggling the city's sewer problems with the opening gala of the symphony (for which she's also chairwoman).

"The mayor is issuing an emergency declaration making funds available for the Third Street Project ... $5 million!"

There is applause -- and then reality comes to the microphone, person by person. Before it's over, there will be more than 25 speakers, all passionate.

Espanola Jackson, a rabble-rouser who's been on the sewage issue since the first promises were made 20 years ago, can't be ignored. Clad in a bright-pink jogging out-fit, black fur hat, and gold-rimmed glasses, Jackson is a woman with something to say.

"If they would allow me into this plant with a key," she says, holding up the big wooden key that she often brandishes at public meetings, "I would turn it so that no one else could flush except us in the Bayview. This is not a Hunters Point problem, this is a city problem. We don't trust you."

A chorus of voices -- neighbors, environmentalists, surfers, engineers, and activists of all sorts -- expands on Jackson's concerns. Despite the seeming focus this evening on Bayview-Hunters Point, people are here from neighborhoods all over the city. The barrage of criticism is impressive, even in a city known for the haranguing of public officials.

"We want PUC staff to have an attitude change."
"We want options on the table."
"We've been polluted for 46 years."
"Don't just put a band-aid on this."
"You would never think of putting something like this in your neighborhood."

The commissioners don't seem altogether ready for the heat. The transportation and real estate and advertising executives all wear a look that says they want this to be over more than anything else in life right now. They just want to go home.

"We're here because we want to be here," a sober Caen tells the group in conclusion. "I don't think it's wise to be enemies. I don't think it's wise to throw insults. We serve on this commission because we care about the problems in this city."

Sewers make for strange politics. Recently, many city environmental activists joined forces with Bayview-Hunters Point residents. The proposed Mission Bay project is expected to add huge amounts of residential and commercial development between downtown and the Bayview. The additional sewage to be produced is both an environmental and a neighborhood issue, so the groups -- which had had opposing agendas -- came together.

As a result, the Catellus Corp., which is developing Mission Bay, and the city agreed that the project would include a separated sewer system -- with storm and waste water in different pipes -- and that storm water would be treated and released without going into the city's overburdened system.

But the Mission Bay agreement is one act of long-term planning in a policy area dominated by short-term thinking.

San Francisco is an old city, with old sewers. About 90 of the 900 miles of sewers in San Francisco are made of bricks. When construction or heavy traffic moves the soil that's keeping those bricks in place, the sewers fall down. Just last June, at the beginning of rush hour, a 100-year-old brick sewer collapsed, leaving a 20-foot-wide sinkhole at Jackson and Kearny streets.

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