Thinking outside the pipe

Pub date August 8, 2006
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION Although it’s named the SF Sewer System Master Plan Project, San Francisco’s long-term wastewater program deals with a lot more than sewage. It addresses stormwater runoff as well as the used water that drains out of our residential and commercial sinks, toilets, showers, and washing machines. It offers us a choice between the high road of environmental justice, sustainability, and the emerging green economy and the heavily engineered “pump-and-dump” approach that has defined the city’s sewage and stormwater management practices since San Francisco was first settled.
The high road views the water that we use and that falls on our city as a resource that is too good to waste. San Franciscans now have a once in a generation opportunity to put that idea into practice through a range of innovative technologies, design techniques, and “out of the pipe” thinking. Just a few of the possibilities: building compact facilities to treat our wastewater closer to where it is first generated and where it can be reused, rather than pumping it all into one community where it can become a nuisance; transforming our streets, parks, and school yards into a network of green, healthy corridors that are vital parts of our drainage management system; and harvesting stormwater through green roofs, cisterns, and permeable surfaces.
The high road not only creates jobs for the skilled trade workers who will be needed to rebuild and upgrade the system but also provides opportunities for training and employment for younger and lower-skilled workers to maintain our green infrastructure. While many of the Public Utilities Commission staff have embraced these alternatives, public support will be critical to overcoming the institutional bias for the status quo.
Today stormwater and sewage are considered waste to be made invisible, quickly pumped somewhere for treatment, then dumped. The resulting wastewater system places 80 percent of San Francisco’s sewage treatment burden — and its accompanying problems — in the already mistreated Bayview–Hunters Point neighborhood. During rains the water that falls on the streets is quickly routed down storm drains and toward the city’s treatment facilities. Under normal circumstances the stormwater and sewage are treated, then discharged 800 feet offshore into San Francisco Bay and into an “exemption zone” in the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary, four and a half miles into the Pacific Ocean.
But rains overwhelm the system between 10 and 20 times every year, resulting in neighborhood flooding and overflows of more than a billion gallons of minimally treated sewage and stormwater along our waterfront annually. Since the rains are diverted into pipes instead of being absorbed into the ground, the west-side aquifer that supports Lake Merced and Pine Lake is starved of water.
The planning process now underway gives us an opportunity to address these problems. The sewer master plan provides a variety of ways for San Franciscans to get involved. They must do so to build the type of wastewater system that we can be proud of. SFBG
Alex Lantsberg
Alex Lantsberg is cochair of the Alliance for a Clean Waterfront ( and chair of the Public Utilities Commission’s Citizens Advisory Committee. For more information, contact him at