SFFD water in power play

What started as a way to save money for the Fire Department in a budget pinch has turned into something akin to a corporate merger.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission was going to start paying the costs of maintaining the Auxiliary Water Supply System, which pumps water throughout The City for fighting fires, but contract negotiations are now moving toward the commission assuming the entire operation.

That has some fire commissioners worried that a system meant for battling infernos will end up being used for other purposes.

The 96-year-old Auxiliary Water Supply System still belongs to the Fire Department, but its maintenance was supposed to be turned over to the PUC at a cost of about $2.4 million a year. The agreement is largely a cost-saving measure that would end up diverting money to San Francisco’s general fund and was approved during the budget season earlier this year.

The PUC’s water enterprise is funded through water rates that come in from about 2.4 million customers throughout the Bay Area.

When there’s a fire, there could be a question about who would be calling the shots, said Fire Commission President Victor Makras, who spent several years as a member of the PUC. Currently, fire captains make the decisions to divert water to specific areas in The City.

Also, the PUC could be using the system, for example, to flush out the aging city sewer network. Makras has called for a Fire Commission hearing Nov. 24 to explore the feasibility of the transfer.

Michael Carlin, deputy general manager of operations for the PUC, said there should be no concern about who calls the shots during a fire. PUC employees already work with firefighters when water is needed for a blaze.

Carlin said the PUC can make improvements to the system that will benefit water customers. The auxiliary system is riddled with leaks and when it fills with drinking water, those leaks result in a considerable loss of potable water.

“We don’t view this as a hostile takeover,” Carlin said. “This is good for San Franciscans.”

bbegin@sfexaminer.com
 

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