One of the messier recent City Hall confrontations is Wednesday’s firing of Susan Leal as general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which will cost taxpayers $400,000 in severance pay. This forced departure has triggered concerns that a massive project for rebuilding The City’s crumbling sewer system could be delayed as new administrators get up to speed.
Some of the 1,000 milesof brick-walled sewer tunnels beneath San Francisco streets date from the 19th century, and nearly 70 percent are more than 70 years old. Plans have been under way for years on a three-decade, multibillion-dollar effort to renovate the network of tunnels, pump stations and treatment plants that process 80 million gallons of wastewater daily.
At this point, the sewers are kept operational by a hardy crew of less than a dozen city employees who creep daily through the vermin- and cockroach-infested tunnels, inspecting the walls and patching plaster wherever they observe missing bricks or grout. Without this constant mending, The City would experience considerably more potholes and collapsed streets caused by tunnel failures just beneath the pavement.
Another ever-present risk from antiquated sewers is that during heavy storms, rainwater floods into the sewers and more than sextuples the normal volume of liquid filth flowing through the pipelines. The repulsive result is that raw sewage overflows into city streets and pollutes the Bay. Piecemeal modernization has reduced sewer discharges from up to 80 a year prior to the 1980s to approximately 10 a year now, according to SFPUC officials. But even one yearly sewage overflow is one too many.
Several factors stemming from Leal’s ouster could interfere with timely advancement of a completed sewage master plan. Incoming General Manager Ed Harrington, the respected former city controller, is expected to bring in a new team of senior-level assistants who would need time to become acclimated. It also would not be surprising if some of Leal’s top engineers also choose to resign from the city agency that oversees San Francisco’s electricity and water in addition to sewers. And the five-member SFPUC is currently functioning with one vacant seat, after the Board of Supervisors rejected one of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s appointees Tuesday.
Specific reasons why Newsom engineered the commission’s termination of Leal have remained murky, since she was noticeably more active at forwarding major projects than her immediate predecessors and had solid support among the supervisors. However, mayoral spokesman Nathan Ballard stated that replacing Leal with Harrington would “bring fiscal discipline to the PUC” and “usher in a new era of cooperation and collaboration” between the commission and the Mayor’s Office.
In any event, fiscal watchdog Harrington is a good choice to spearhead The City’s ongoing multibillion-dollar public utilities projects. And right now a top priority is to move ahead with the sewer overhaul as expeditiously as possible.