Surfers think city's exposed sewage tunnel warning is a bunch of crap

Though less famous than its San Diego–area namesake, San Francisco's Ocean Beach is anything but unknown to surfers: Its three miles of coastline provide “a world-class surf spot,” says surfer Josh Berry. Its rip current and big winter waves mean it's for experienced riders only, and those riders come from “all over — not just [locally] — to surf here,” Berry adds.

However, the recent spate of storms means surfing at Ocean Beach could soon get shitty — as in, 10 million gallons of raw sewage shitty. This winter's heavy rains have caused the bluffs supporting a 900-foot-long stretch of the Great Highway to fall onto the beach. Underneath that stretch of road runs a huge underground tunnel, carrying half of the city's wastewater. The Department of Public Works says it needs to immediately begin placing huge boulders at the foot of the eroding bluffs, at a cost of $2.6 million. If it doesn't, and the rainstorms start again, the bluffs and road could deteriorate further, exposing the sewage tunnel. If the tunnel ruptures — well, sheeeit.

But Berry, who is also environmental director of the Save the Waves Coalition, a beach advocacy group, is calling bullshit on DPW. Berry says private engineers have told him the concrete tunnel is “as strong as a seawall,” and that there's an undefined amount of bluff that would need to erode before the tunnel is exposed. How much? Nobody — including the city — seems to be sure. “It could be 20 feet, it could be 50 feet,” he says. Either way, by even mentioning the sewage tunnel, Berry says DPW is “using fear tactics” to get support for its boulder-placement plan. That plan happens to be a lot cheaper than the surfer-backed solution of dumping tons of sand on the disappearing bluff.

Since 2007, 70 feet of bluff has eroded, and almost half of that — 30 feet — has fallen away in the last two months alone. “We need to do something now to protect the road, and to protect the [sewage tunnel],” DPW spokeswoman Christine Falvey told SF Weekly. The department will begin work on the emergency project after Feb. 1, but thanks to a grilling at City Hall last week from Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who attended a surfers' town hall meeting regarding erosion, DPW has had to take an extra week to meet with the surfers and other interested groups.

That's a waste of time, according to Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, through whose district the tunnel flows. Elsbernd has been dealing with erosion since 1999, when he was a legislative aide and the last El Niño storm system blew through. According to him, one week, two weeks, or six weeks won't change the core issue: There isn't sufficient time or money to enact a long-term solution, so the rocks need to go down now. If they don't, and the storms continue? It's shit creek, baby.

“The only option we have is placing the rocks, unless we find millions of dollars in the next week,” Elsbernd said. “There is no benefit [to delaying].”

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