Countdown to the Waste Emergency

The majority of San Francisco's sewer pipes were built before 1975, and the city is trying to replace them before they fail.

S.F.’s public sewer system dates back to the Gold Rush. This brick-lined sewer is more than 100 years old. (Photo by SFPUC/Photographer Carmen Magana)

We drop our drawers several times a day to rid ourselves of Blue Bottle coffee, Yamo garlic noodles, or The Mill’s slices of fancy toast. But once the deed is done, we don’t usually contemplate where it’s gone. How does poo move from a public restroom into a processing plant? When were sewers installed in San Francisco? And how long do they last?

For one city department, sewers are not just a useful aid in ridding oneself of digested food, but a full-time job. For the workers of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, sewers and their maintenance are a 24-hour- a-day, seven-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year consideration. Specialists draw up budgets to secure funding to maintain them, engineers plan out methods to replace old pipes, and construction workers do the hard labor of digging up our bumpy old streets while receiving the wrath of frustrated drivers. While it’s easy to take our functioning sewer system for granted, we shouldn’t — because it’s a pretty crazy feat that it works at all.

First, a little history: The first 250 miles of our small seven-by-seven city’s sewage pipes were built during the gold rush, in the late 1800s. Unlike most major cities in the U.S., San Francisco has a combined sewer system — which means it handles both sewage and stormwater. This means that digested Wise Sons bagel is hanging out with the water pouring down Church Street during your morning commute.

By 1899, the city had adopted its first Wastewater Master Plan, which led to an expansion of the piping so that by 1935, San Francisco had approximately 700 miles of sewer pipes hidden underneath its hills. Thirty-five years later, that number climbed to 900 miles, plus 22 pump stations and three treatment plants.

Think about that for a second: S.F. now has more than 1,000 miles of sewer pipes, the majority of which were built more than 75 years ago. Each year, they manage more than 438 billion gallons of waste and stormwater. Armed with those figures, it seems miraculous that flushing any toilet in San Francisco so effectively rids a bathroom of human waste.

Unfortunately, sewer pipes don’t last forever, and the current reality is that many, many miles of old pipe need to be replaced, stat. With limited financial resources, SFPUC has to decide how much to allocate toward keeping the system operating (to protect public health and the environment), and how many old pipes to replace with new ones.

The work is moving along at a snail’s pace, but steady progress is being made. Chris Colwick, the city’s Sewer System Improvement Program Communications Manager, tells SF Weekly that each year, more than 130 miles of sewer pipes are inspected — but that old pipes pose unexpected hazards.

“With some of the sewer pipes that are 150-plus years old, the system can fail without warning,” he says. “These can be anything from sewage backing up onto the street or inside properties, broken main or side sewer pipes, sinkholes, et cetera. These emergency situations require our crews to immediately respond and remedy the situation to make sure public health and the environment are kept safe.”

Each year, an average of 13 miles of sewer get replaced. These areas are prioritized by taking into account the sewer pipe’s age, location, and potentially negative effect on public safety. But once an area has been chosen to be worked on, the obstacles don’t stop there. Colwick outlines just a few of the issues that arise.

“Challenges of doing sewer repair/replacement in a dense urban environment can range from working in small streets, working around underground utilities (such as gas, telecommunications, phone, and the need to move them prior to starting the sewer work), vehicular and pedestrian traffic, cultural resources and buried ships that are underground,” Colwick says, giving a nod to the chaos that ensues when construction workers attempt to dig anywhere in the Financial District, which is full of sunken vessels.

In addition, day-to-day nuisances can delay projects. Then there are special events like Bay to Breakers, inclement weather, coordination with various city agencies who may be working alongside the sewer replacement project. Making sure the work makes the least impact possible on residents and businesses is difficult.

One of the best contemporary examples of how replacing a sewer can cause chaos is Haight Street. Drive or bike along the popular commercial corridor, and you can experience for yourself what an enormous mess it currently is. Big metal plates cover exposed holes in the street, the choppy surface threatens to rattle apart the 7-Haight bus, and many stretches of sidewalk are closed off to pedestrians.

Further, a large number of gas leaks took place in Upper Haight between 2015 and 2016, resulting in an extended pause on the project and the firing of a subcontractor who kept hitting gas lines. Merchants and residents have railed against the city for its repeated construction failures in the area, and they are not happy that work is still going on during the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love — a key time to make money from visiting tourists.

But onward the sewer replacement project must move, unless city residents all transition to outhouses built over pits in our small backyards. SFPUC is currently inching its way through 70 projects with a budget of $2.9 billion. Aside from maintaining and replacing our sewers, this money will go toward wastewater treatment, stormwater management to reduce flooding, preparation for rising sea levels, minimizing odors from treatment plants, and preparing our vital infrastructure system for major earthquakes. No one wants to have to rely on another Golden Hydrant to save us in the event of a big shaker.

And while all of this may make day-to-day commutes to work and trips down Masonic Avenue and Haight Street bumpy as hell, it will leave the city better prepared for generations to come.

Check out more stories from our Toilet Issue here:

Happy Crappers: S.F.’s Best Toilets
Some San Francisco restaurants’ restrooms are a work of art, period.

Throne of Terror
Many celebrities have died on the toilet or in the bathroom.

San Francisco Has an Experimental Toilet Showroom by AT&T Park
TOTO’s Concept 190 is the No. 1 place for a futuristic No. 2.

View Comments