Firefighting water in PUC hands

The deteriorating network of pipes, cisterns, intake valves and reservoirs that push water through hydrants and hoses to put out fires around The City has found a new caretaker.

While the 96-year-old Auxiliary Water Supply System still belongs to the Fire Department, the Public Utilities Commission has all but taken over the maintenance of the system at a cost of about $2.4 million a year, though voters may be asked to approve a bond for more repairs.

The agreement is largely a cost-saving measure, and will end up diverting money to The City’s general fund. The PUC’s water enterprise is funded through the water rates that come in from about 2.4 million water customers. A contract to make the move official is being negotiated.

Thirteen Fire Department staffers, plumbers and stationary staff who have already worked on the project will now work for the PUC, according to PUC spokesman Tony Winnicker. The utilities agency is conducting its own evaluation of the system.

As the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake approaches, officials have been looking at restoring and expanding the system in anticipation of another earthquake. A study released earlier this year laid out a number of weak spots in the system and called for an overhaul.

The system isn’t the only way to get water on fires. In the Loma Prieta earthquake, several fires in the Marina district were extinguished with the help of a portable water supply system, along with a boat that pumps salt water onto flames, according to the report.

The 1989 earthquake also caused five breaks in the SoMa area because of liquefaction and lateral earth spread.

An overhaul of the system is estimated at $87 million, and officials planned to fund the project with a bond measure that was meant for the November ballot. The proposition never made it there, however, and Supervisor Sean Elsbernd has called for a hearing on the feasibility of a bond initiative in June 2010.

bbegin@sfexaminer.com

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