Fecal Matters

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

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.

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.

The spill released 94 million gallons of rainwater and sewage into Lobos Creek, doing so much damage to the ecosystem that Water Board inspectors estimated it would take three years to recover. In all, the catastrophe cost San Francisco an estimated $25 million in emergency repairs, fines, and legal settlements.

While clearly the largest, and perhaps weirdest, the Sea Cliff incident was not the first such occurrence. Earlier in 1995, a sinkhole had grabbed a firetruck in the Richmond District. In November 1994, collapsing pipes caused a 100-foot-wide hole on Pacific Avenue that sucked in four cars.

For most of his life, John Allen has worked for the City and County of San Francisco in some fashion or another. He retired from the city's employ after 25 years of service, but continued to serve on public interest committees in Bayview-Hunters Point. A particularly polite gentleman, Allen has reaped the rewards of hard work and frugal existence. He owns eight apartment buildings in the area, recognizable by the passages of biblical Scripture painted prominently on the outside of each. Allen believes the Scripture sets an inspirational, respectful tone. One of his apartment buildings is near the Southeast Water Pollution Control Plant.

Allen is very familiar with the dull stench of rotting sewage. Off and on, he smells the sewage at his home, across Third Street from the plant. His tenants live with the stink every day. But there's something even more aggravating to Allen than the smell. It is the mosquitoes that breed at the sewage plant.

"I would be over working on the building and come home covered with bites," Allen says, poking a finger at his face and neck for emphasis. "My tenants were complaining. It would be epidemic, and the sewer plant refused to acknowledge that they had a problem.

"At one point, they sent someone out to exterminate the mosquitoes," Allen says. "Other times they just ignored me."

From the beginning, residents of Bayview-Hunters Point wanted nothing to do with the sewer plant expansion called for in the waste-water master plan. But then-Mayor Joseph Alioto struck a deal with the community: Along with an expanded southeast treatment plant, the neighborhood would get a new community center, with a branch of City College on-site. Also, an underground, cross-town tunnel would be built, to take most of the sewage west, to the Oceanside Treatment Plant. And, the neighbors were promised, the newly renovated southeast plant would be "odorless."

The neighbors got a community center.
The tunnel, estimated to cost $300 million, has created years of controversy -- environmentalists opposed it, Bayview neighborhood groups demanded it -- but has yet to be built. City officials say it's dead. Johnson Lam, inspector for the Regional Water Quality Control Board, says it's still a possibility. There is absolutely no ambiguity, however, on the issue of odor. The Southeast Water Pollution Control Plant still stinks to high heaven.

The plant, first constructed in 1952, now includes about 40 acres of sewage treatment facilities that handle 85 million gallons of waste per day (250 million gallons per day in wet weather).

Once at the plant, sewer water goes into seven or eight big tubs called primary clarifiers. At least some of the doors atop these tanks are typically open, so that engineers can observe the flow. Not surprisingly, the tanks smell like rank, standing water. The sewage then moves along into open pools that are about 100 feet across and 15 feet deep. There, sprinklers add fresh water, in an aeration process that approximates what might happen in a natural pond.

Things really start to stink when waste moves into the secondary treatment side of the equation. This secondary process starts with something called dissolved air flotation thickeners -- six big tubs of warm, thick, bubbly, brown goo that smells so foul it's nearly impossible to be near them for more than a few minutes without losing lunch. The tubs are entirely open, their pungent smell filling the air.

And then, the sewage moves into the much-discussed star of the plant -- the anaerobic digesters, which look kind of like silos. There are currently six in use, each full of about 1.7 million gallons of thickened, smelly sludge. That sludge stays for about 20 days. During that time, bacteria digest the sludge, in a process similar to what goes on inside human intestines. Not surprisingly, the digesters constantly create gas. These old digesters are designed in such a way that there is about 4 inches around the top of each one that is open to the outside. The smell emitted from the digesters is basically that of methane -- swamp gas.

The city hired a consultant to create an Odor Control Master Plan for the southeast plant. It prescribes more than $180 million of covering, venting, and replacing of equipment. It is unclear where that money would come from.

By contrast, the Oceanside plant, built in the early 1990s, has modern digesters that are entirely enclosed and self-cleaning. In fact, the entire plant is enclosed and barely noticeable to the casual observer, a particular sore point with the neighbors of its smelly, old, southeast cousin.

On the kind of summer evening that turns a warm, sunny day into a cool, foggy night in the Bayview, a group of people who are painfully out of their element gravitates to the front of a room in the Southeast Community Center. They take seats behind their name plates: Ann Moller Caen, Robert Werbe, Frank Cook, Dennis Normandy. They are San Francisco's Public Utilities Commission, charged with overseeing such vital yet mundane functions as the city's sewer and water systems.

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.

The city has spent about $95 million on damaged sewers since 1978. Engineers say that's not nearly enough. And, they say, there are just 35 people charged with the maintenance of 900 miles of aged sewer lines.

"That's enough to put out fires, not enough to keep up the sewers," says Tom Franza, deputy manager of the PUC's Water Pollution Control Division.

The city's inadequate and poorly maintained sewer system is only going to grow more and more overtaxed. The Giants' new Pacific Bell Park, the Mission Bay project, and a continuing construction boom in the South of Market area will create a steady increase in sewage headed through undersized lines to the outdated Southeast Water Pollution Control Plant. And when it rains, there will be more fountains of rats and sewage, because San Francisco is still pasting band-aids on the broken bones of a collapsing system.

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