Storm Water Management as a Tool for Greening the Northeast Mission
By Alex Lantsberg, Alliance for a Clean Waterfront 

Wintertime poses a serious problem for residents and businesses around the historic Mission Creek where sewer back-ups during heavy rains are always a threat. The start of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s Sewer Master Plan (www.sfsewers.org) and the planned rezoning of the Northeast Mission provide unprecedented opportunities for Mission Creek residents and businesses to not only solve these flooding problems, but also beautify and green their neighborhood.  Mission Creek neighbors must get involved to ensure that these changes occur.

Like many older American cities, San Francisco’s street drains tie into the same underground pipes as the domestic sewers.  With sewage and stormwater in the same pipes, it all becomes a “waste” to be quickly collected and pumped away for treatment and disposal. Roughly 80% of San Francisco’s wastewater goes to the Southeast Treatment Plant in the Bayview, a community long used as the City’s dumping ground.  When heavy rains coincide with high tides the combined system is overwhelmed, overflowing into the Bay and Ocean, and sometimes flooding neighborhoods and basements. This approach employs a massive infrastructure of tunnels, pipes and pumps that consume energy, costs millions of dollars to build and maintain, and results in the blighting of SF’s eastern neighborhoods.

One way to solve this problem is to reduce the amount of stormwater getting into the sewers, especially when rainfall is heaviest. Modern technologies and environmental design techniques to manage excess storm water can double as new landscaping and open space in many neighborhoods. New greening initiatives by the Mayor will target areas where porous sandy soils beneath urban concrete can be exposed to receive rainwater, thereby diverting it to the ground, where instead of being a problem to contend with it, becomes part of the green solution. The design of San Francisco’s streets can play a key role, yet these opportunities are greatly underutilized.

The explicit linkage between City streets and its water management program provides a clear regulatory mandate and a funding partner for the Mayor’s ambitious greening agenda. While the Sewer Master Plan will flesh out how these solutions would work in individual neighborhoods and set out a long timeline for implementing these changes, the planned rezoning of the Northeast Mission provides an ideal vehicle to put these ideas into practice with every development project and public improvement. 

The PUC has shown that it understands the need to look upstream of the sewer grate but there is uncertainty whether it has fully grasped the opportunities and value of citywide aesthetic enhancement. Public involvement in the Sewer Master Plan process will be vital to ensuring that these solutions are adopted.  The PUC has held a round of community meeting will be holding more in the future.  Those looking to get more involved can attend and join, the PUC’s Citizens Advisory Committee Wastewater Subcommittee, which meets regularly on the third Thursday of the month and closely monitors the planning process.

The Alliance for a Clean Waterfront is a coalition of 26 community and environmental organizations working toward the protection and enhancement of San Francisco’s water resources. One of our goals is to reduce the combined sewage overflows (CSOs) discharged to the Bay and Ocean during storm events, which are harmful to those ecosystems and pose a human health risk for recreational users and people who consume Bay-caught seafood.   

The Alliance has been working to incorporate the view that sewage and stormwater are precious resources not waste as a guiding principle for the development of the monumental Sewage Master Plan.  The Alliance’s seeks to unleash the value in San Francisco's "waste" water by using it for recycling, conservation, neighborhood beautification, ground water recharge, wildlife habitat and environmental education through smaller, localized, sewage and storm water management solutions

Alex Lantsberg is co-chair of the Alliance for a Clean Waterfront and Chair of the PUC’s Citizens Advisory Committee.  For more information, contact him at (415) 794-2539 or at lantsberg@gmail.com.

© 2006 Madrina Group. All rights reserved.