S.F. Examiner file photo by Mike Koozmin

San Francisco at 1 million: Can utilities handle population boom?

Every major aspect of San Francisco is set to feel daunting strain due to a sustained population surge, but here’s some relief: The City’s utility infrastructure is ostensibly prepared to shoulder the burden, officials say.

Despite the 35 percent population growth rate between 2010 and 2040 predicted in an upcoming report from the Association of Bay Area Governments, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission appears confident that it can utilize enough conservation techniques to keep water demand flat for 20 to 25 years. The report predicts the roughly 825,000 current population will balloon to 1 million by about 2032, and that the Bay Area will increase from 7.2 million people to 9.3 million by 2040.

Electric and gas lines are already being replaced, mostly within the eastern half of The City, where PG&E has pledged up to $1.5 billion to upgrade transmission lines and replace old natural gas pipelines with plastic in some cases to better handle earthquakes.

The City also possesses one of the best and most reliable water systems, with its source from Sierra Nevada snowmelt at Yosemite National Park. Total residential water usage has been dropping as the population has started to increase. San Franciscans used an average of 57 gallons per person per day in 2004 compared to 51 gallons in 2011, according to SFPUC monthly sales data.

Still, more people means total usage could creep up in the future and create an increased need to conserve.

The SFPUC has already tried to set the standard for future buildings in The City with its new $200 million headquarters, dubbed “the greenest building in the world.” It boasts 60 percent less water usage than a normal office building. And last fall, the agency announced it had completed a $225,000 effort to update The City’s Housing Authority units with thousands of efficient showerheads and toilets. San Francisco is even looking into the very early stages of desalinating Bay water.

Currently, the SFPUC is helping to launch a grant program encouraging Sunset district residents to take their concrete front yards and replace them with grass or some other permeable surface in order to cut down on the amount of stormwater runoff that floods sewers during heavy rain. Similar efforts are getting underway for the “Wiggle” bike corridor, according to SFPUC spokesman Tyrone Jue.

A weak spot for San Francisco is that stormwater shares effluent pipes with treated wastewater, so when the skies open so do the pipes that pump liquid waste to its final destination — more than 30 discharge locations along the Bay and Pacific Ocean.

And with more people inevitably comes more, well, poop.

Parts of San Francisco’s 1,000 miles of sewer date back to the Gold Rush era, and wastewater system maintenance accounts for nearly a third of the SFPUC’s $889 million annual budget.

Still, Jue said he doesn’t anticipate higher sewer repair costs than the 15 miles or so that is either replaced or fixed every year.

“Will more have to be maintained with more people? No, not necessarily,” Jue said.

San Francisco at 1 million

The City is poised to hit the mark in less than two decades. This five-part series will explore the challenges San Francisco faces in handling this population milestone.

SUNDAY: What will San Francisco look like with 1 million residents?

MONDAY: Utility operators prepare for the population crush

TUESDAY:

THURSDAY: Muni will need big changes to handle big boost in passengers

FRIDAY: Housing philosophy of “build more now” sure to be tested in the future

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