How to fix the sewers


EDITORIAL Every time it rains heavily in San Francisco, millions of gallons of barely treated sewage flow into the bay. The city's ancient sewage system has only one set of pipes — the stuff that's put down the toilets and drains and the stuff that comes out of the clouds use the same underground pathways — and when there's too much precipitation, the old pipes and storage tanks get overwhelmed, and there's no place for the putrid mix to go but into the local waterway.
The raw shit is obviously unhealthy for people and for aquatic life: the bay doesn't flush well, which means our sewage sticks around awhile. Even in dry weather, the city's sewage system frankly stinks. Residents who live near the antiquated sewage treatment plan in Hunters Point have to smell it every day. A full 80 percent of the city's wastewater winds up in a treatment plant in Bayview that everyone agrees is a relic from the 1950s that at the very least needs to be upgraded substantially.
There's really no way to get around it: the politics of sewage is the politics of poverty, power, and race. As Sarah Phelan reports (“It Flows Downhill,” page 15), the west side of town has a well-constructed treatment center that doesn't issue any odors at all and handles only a fraction of the city's sewage. The heavy shit, so to speak, gets dumped on an area that has way, way too much of the city's nuisances already.
In the meantime, it's entirely reasonable for San Franciscans to ask why this environmentally conscious city makes such an awful mess of the basic problem of disposing of stormwater and human waste.
So the planning process that's now underway for overhauling and upgrading the city's wastewater system is an opportunity to undo decades of environmental racism and take a totally different approach to handling the water that comes into and flows out of San Francisco.
The first step, as Alex Lantsberg points out in an op-ed (page 7), is to stop looking at all that water as a problem. Water is a resource, a valuable resource. This city has constructed an elaborate system to bring freshwater into town from the Tuolumne River, 200 miles away. And yet, the fresh, potable rainwater that falls on the city creates a crisis every winter. There's a serious disconnect here.
Take a look at a satellite photo of the city and you see a lot of flat rooftops and concrete roadways that together make up a huge percentage of the topographic landmass of San Francisco. These are places that now simply allow rainwater to run off into the storm drains. There's no reason that those roofs can't collect that water into cisterns, which could turn that rain into sources of drinking water, water to wash with, water to irrigate plants ... water that otherwise would have to be sucked out of a high Sierra watershed.
There are vast amounts of space in the city where concrete — street medians, building fronts, sidewalks, etc. — serve as nothing but conduits for sloshing rainwater. With a little creativity, some of that area could be filled with plants that could absorb some of the rain — increasing green space and making the city a better place to live in the process.
And with modern technology, there's no reason that all of the streets have to be impermeable concrete. As city streets are torn up, there are ways to look at pavements that are less than watertight, allowing some of the rain to soak in.
There are, in other words, ways to make San Francisco a model city for handling wastewater in an environmentally sustainable way. That won't be the cheapest way to get the system repaired, but in the long run, it's the only reasonable approach.
There are also ways to end the injustice that comes from living in the southeast neighborhoods and getting the worst of everyone else's crap.