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SF announces $700M to expand sewer infrastructure, effort to boost flood prevention

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The $700 million in San Francisco Public Utilities Commission funding comes from payer rates and will be used for improvements like expanding pipe capacities. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F Examiner)
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City leaders on Tuesday announced joint efforts to curb flooding at various low points throughout San Francisco by mapping them and supporting residents in readying for stormy weather through a number of new programs.

Additionally, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission said it has earmarked some $700 million to invest in expanding sewer infrastructure over the next 15 years.

Ahead of rain expected this weekend, various department heads gathered at Chan Kajaal Park, located near one of The City’s most flood-prone intersections at 17th and Folsom streets, to announce a new strategy that focuses on working with residents and business owners around flood prevention.

“There is only so much we can do [in terms of] infrastructure improvement,” said SFPUC spokesperson Tyler Gamble, adding that in recent months, a working group comprised of various city departments conducted outreach to residents in flood-prone areas to identify more immediate relief efforts.

Recent natural catastrophes, such as devastating hurricanes that have ravaged municipalities around the country, contributed to The City’s shift in focus on preventative efforts, Gamble said.

“The first thing we did is identified and mapped out these low-lying areas so that residents and businesses know where [they] are so they can participate in the programs that we are offering,” SFPUC General Manager Harlan Kelly said Tuesday.

Those programs include educating residents about flood insurance, as well as training and equipping volunteers to clear storm drains of debris under SFPUC’s Adopt-A-Drain initiative. Already, the latter has garnered some 1,700 “drain adopters,” Kelly said.

The SFPUC is also offering a floodwater grant through which the agency reimburses property owners for improvements made independently to protect against flooding.

“We are trying to make it easier by identifying contractors, engineers and designers, and [giving] them a list so they understand what features we would approve,” Kelly said. “For low-income applicants, we are looking at trying to advance payments so they can get the work done.”

Last week, the SFPUC approved a $2 million increase in funding for the grant and has worked to streamline its grant application process, Kelly said.

“We had heard from residents that it was a cumbersome [application] process,” said Gamble. “They needed more direction for what they really could do — like wet proofing their homes or [installing] backflow preventers. We came up wtih list of projects they can do at home.”

Kelly called the “RainReady” strategy one of the “most comprehensive flood resilient strategies in the country.”
The SFPUC will dedicate a proposed $700 million of its budget to flooding work over the next 15 years under its Sewer System Improvement Program. The funding comes from payer rates and will be used on improvements such as expanding pipe capacities, Gamble said.

Kelly said less than 1 percent of The City is affected by flooding, and improvement will be focused on at-risk areas.

“During dry weather we treat about 70 million gallons a day, but during wet weather we go up to 700 to 800 million gallons a day,” he said. “The infrastructure is large enough to handle large storms, but our storms are getting larger than our system can handle.”

San Francisco has about 25,000 catch basins, or storm drains. Kelly said The City manages to clean about 5,000 annually, although the need is much higher — about half require cleaning as leaves and other debris tend to clog the drains.

Despite the proposed investment in sewer infrastructure, Supervisor Hillary Ronen — who has long heard complaints about flooding areas in her district — said, “We cannot engineer our way out of what has become extreme weather events throughout the United States.”

Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru said his department is providing flood barriers and sandbags. Residents and businesses are privy to 10 sandbags, which they can pick up from the Public Works operations yard at the intersection of Kansas and Marin streets, Mondays through Fridays.

While last year was particularly wet — San Francisco saw a total of 32.34 inches of rain from July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017, compared to 23 inches the year before — rain levels this year are expected to be closer to average, or about 21 inches, said Will Pi, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Still, Public Works is gearing up for the rainy season.

“All our crews are out there trying to prune trees to make sure branches don’t fall on cars, that trees don’t fall and make sure the leaves won’t clog our catch basins,” said Nuru.

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