While many San Franciscans are putting up holiday decorations, many others are busy with less-than-festive preparations: getting our homes and businesses ready for what looks like a very wet winter thanks to El Niño.
But, thanks to decades of negligence from the San Francisco Public Utilities Department, we’re facing a much more terrifying scenario than just rainwater: millions of gallons of untreated raw sewage that could very well inundate our houses and businesses just like it did twice in one week a year ago.
As I wrote in a previous article for Community Voices, after moving into our Mission Terrace home just three months prior, my husband and I were shocked to find this has been happening to our neighborhood and others across the city for decades. That’s right: The SFPUC has been allowing raw sewage—a disgusting, toxic sludge of human waste that spews out of manhole covers—to discharge into homes during storms.
Not surprisingly, the past year has been one of the most difficult and stressful of our lives, as has been the case for many of our neighbors. We’ve collectively spent thousands of hours studying SFPUC documents, attending meetings and spreading the word about this hazardous situation. We’ve paid tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket to replace lost items and appliances the City said it would reimburse us for, but hasn’t, forcing us to sue. To say this whole ordeal has been a nightmare is an understatement.
But recently, the organization that residents formed to bring awareness to the dangers of San Francisco’s inadequate sewers, Solutions Not Sandbags (www.solutionsnotsandbags.org), has seen some promising momentum. Some highlights:
- Many media reports, including a hard-hitting, well-reported cover story in SF Weekly documenting SFPUC’s incompetence and the havoc it has caused residents (By the way, San Francisco Chronicle, you’re getting scooped all over the place!)
- Acknowledgement from regional and state water quality boards and the Environmental Protection Agency that this is a serious problem and will be addressed
- Discovery of yet more incriminating documents that demonstrate how SFPUC consultants and executives continue to intentionally mislead us about the known health risks of raw sewage
- More and more affected residents contacting Solutions Not Sandbags every day to get involved
The SFPUC has spearheaded a grant program to help homeowners offset costs of preventative measures like backflow valves, sump pumps and flood barriers, but this effectively acknowledges that the streets of San Francisco will be open sewers on a regular basis. In addition, SFPUC has acknowledged that it will address flooding on Folsom Street but so far has only proposed a small project under the Mission Street overpass to reduce the depth of flooding on Cayuga when it does flood. No solutions for Ingleside Terraces have been proposed.
But as-yet-approved plans and yet more paperwork (the grant application process is extremely complicated) do very little to ease outrage among residents that SFPUC has ignored this problem for more than 50 years at the risk of our health and welfare, while spending millions of ratepayers’ dollars to study the problem instead of fix it.
I’m also fearful the SFPUC will use the possible extreme weather of El Niño to continue its pattern of blaming of its incompetence on climate change. As affected residents have expressed repeatedly at various meetings: We are not asking SFPUC to prevent flooding. Instead, we’re asking—rather, demanding—that they stop discharging toxic sewage into our homes and businesses. Residents of Sacramento made the same demand in 1990, and the regional water quality board there required the city to immediately fix the obvious problems.
It also required the City to prevent any sewage from coming out of the sewers in up to the 10-year storm and no sewage to come out of the sewers into homes and businesses in the 100-year storm. This is a reasonable request, as it is not considerably more than San Francisco’s current sewer and street design rules but needs to be enforced to protect public health and safety.
While we continue speaking out about this crisis, Mayor Ed Lee has remained silent since coming to our neighborhood a year ago and promising to help. That may be because of the pending lawsuit, but it does nothing to build confidence about what Lee’s next term means for residents affected by the negligence of SFPUC—whose officials he appointed.
Meanwhile, my husband and I are doing our best to get into the holiday spirit. We have plenty of things to be thankful for, to be sure, but living in a city that cares about the health, safety, and well-being of all of its residents certainly isn’t one of them.
This article first appeared in The Ingleside-Excelsior Light’s December 2015/January 2016 edition. To submit an article for Community Voices, please send a proposal or draft to publisher [at] inglesidelight.com.