|On April 18, 1906 at 5:12 am, one of the most devastating natural disasters in American history left San Francisco in ruins. The 7.8-magnitude earthquake and the fires that it caused destroyed 80 per cent of the city, killed over 3,000 people and left another 250,000 homeless — 62.5 percent of the population at that time.|
Good news for San Francisco! The Board of Supervisors has just unanimously approved on November 19, 2019 a resolution declaring that a “State of Urgency” exists because there is no plan to protect the entire city from fires following a major earthquake.
City leaders have known about this deficiency for decades, but have yet to develop concrete plans or a timeline to provide a robust emergency firefighting water supply for all neighborhoods.”
The legislation authored by Supervisor Gordon Mar resolved “That the Board of Supervisors hereby declares a State of Urgency to rapidly expand the City’s Emergency Firefighting Water System (EFWS) to protect all neighborhoods in the event of a major earthquake and fire, given that the vulnerability of the City poses a serious and urgent threat to the well-being of San Francisco and the safety of its inhabitants and environment.”
Supervisor Mar said “The current pace is not enough and we must expedite the expansion of this life saving infrastructure across the City.”
His resolution is in response to the July 17, 2019 Civil Grand Jury report that identified large parts of the City, particularly in the western and southern districts, that were not covered by the seismically safe, high-pressure Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS), which provides excellent firefighting protection.
The press release for this report stated “City leaders have known about this deficiency for decades, but have yet to develop concrete plans or a timeline to provide a robust emergency firefighting water supply for all neighborhoods.”
Now, the Board of Supervisors has responded by urging City departments to develop a comprehensive action plan with funding identified for expanding the multi-sourced EFWS, to cover the entire City by June 30, 2034. The Board also urges the City to provide them with consolidated annual reports beginning on June 30, 2020 on the state of the EFWS preparedness.
Let us hope that the decades-old deficiency will finally be corrected.
Nancy Wuerfel is a government fiscal analyst and served as a member of the Park, Recreation, Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) for 9 years.
The Civil Grand Jury (CGJ) just issued a report to the City entitled: Act Now Before It Is Too Late: Aggressively Expand and Enhance Our High-Pressure Emergency Firefighting Water System. The title says it all.
“Now” means now, as the report cites the experts’ prediction that a magnitude 6.0 earthquake is due before 2043 to hit the Bay Area with a probability of 98%. “Aggressively expand” our high-pressure water system reminds us that the entire City is still not protected with a water delivery system able to suppress post-earthquake fires. The last time there was any expansion of the underground Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS) was through a 1986 bond promoted by then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein. Since then, AWSS coverage to the western and southern parts of the City has stopped, putting 15 neighborhoods in jeopardy of uncontrollable seismic fires.
Instead of the Mayor directing departments to act now, the response is to conduct more studies before decisions are made, to kick the can down the road ...””
Since the great fire of 1906, we have known exactly what to do to fight cataclysmic fires after a big earthquake: build a network of independent high-pressure pipes and hydrants and supply the system with unlimited amounts of non-potable water. The auxiliary system is dedicated exclusively to fire suppression. San Francisco is the only City in the United States that has this unique protection - or that needs it because we are next to three faults AND our City has access to unlimited water on three sides.
The Mayor and the City departments continually refuse to acknowledge that fires that follow earthquakes are just as dangerous to the future of San Francisco as are sea level rise and climate change. Also, they are in lockstep with each other to avoid commitment to covering the entire City with adequate auxiliary infrastructure using non-potable water for fire protection as their top priority. The City’s new plan is to use Sunset Reservoir’s drinking water to fight fires in the Sunset and Richmond districts, as if that limited amount of water will be sufficient to fight all the simultaneous conflagrations after the earthquake. Then the SFPUC expects to be able to refill the reservoir in 24 hours with Hetch Hetchy water delivered from 167 miles away.
The Mayor responded to the CGJ Recommendation #2 - to protect the entire City within 15 years with an emergency water system plan specifying funding sources - by stating “committing to entirely funding a single program out of context and without regard for the trade-offs of that commitment would be out of step with the City’s longstanding and highly regarded capital planning process and likely create significant vulnerabilities elsewhere in the portfolio.” What trade-off project could be more important than ensuring that the City is not overwhelmed by massive conflagrations after an earthquake?
The Mayor’s response to the CGJ Recommendation #1 - to have the City present a detailed plan by 12/31/20 to the Board of Supervisors - was to push back the timeline to 12/31/21 saying “The City cannot discuss the project and timeline until the [G.O. Bond] ESER 2020 plan passes.” Presumably if the voters do not pass the bond, the detailed plan to ensure that the City is well prepared to fight fires will be in jeopardy. This is the kind of bureaucratic action and limited thinking that has delayed the AWSS expansion for the past 33 years. There is no creative financing beyond asking the taxpayers for the money.
Instead of the Mayor directing departments to act now, the response is to conduct more studies before decisions are made, to kick the can down the road, and to fit the projects into the next 10 year capital plan, thereby delaying AWSS planning until December 2021. Then, we have to wait in line for the AWSS number to come up for funding through G.O. bonds. We already know how, what, and where to build the pipeline network; we just need the leadership to explore state and federal funding sources to deliver completed citywide projects without more delays.
Mayor Edwin Lee knew how to get things done. On September 27, 2017 he issued Executive Directive 17-02, effective immediately and to remain in place until rescinded, “charging all City Departments to work collaboratively toward faster approvals for housing development projects...” and to develop a plan and implementation outline. He charged departments with submitting to him by December 1, 2017 a plan outlining the needed process improvement measures. He demanded action in 65 days after issuing the order and that included the Thanksgiving holidays.
The Mayor Lee level of leadership is what the Civil Grand Jury is asking for. I remind everyone that we put a man on the moon in ten years after President Kennedy made that a goal. We should not have to wait until 2049 before we finish building out a citywide plumbing network with three non-potable water pump stations.
The City is in grave danger of facing a major earthquake with fires without the means to save lives and property. We have wasted valuable time over the past 33 years not preparing for this certainty. A call to action is required now. Tell Mayor London Breed to provide the leadership expected of her to protect the City now, by issuing an Executive Directive to charge all City Departments to work collaboratively to submit to her by December 31, 2019 a plan, funding sources, and implementation outline for project completion by 2030, making the AWSS expansion with unlimited water the City’s top priority. No more excuses!
Nancy Wuerfel is a government fiscal analyst and served as a member of the Park, Recreation, Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) for 9 years.
After all the studies, reports, and discussions at numerous City agencies, commissions, and boards about getting ready for the Big One, San Francisco is still not prepared to deal with fires citywide following a major earthquake. The City has not committed to securing inexhaustible supplies of water to fight these fires. Really, the only way to ensure the City has unlimited water to fight blazes after an earthquake is to build additional pump stations to pull in water from the ocean and bay.
The independent auxiliary water system (AWSS) consists of underground pipelines and hydrants to deliver non-potable water to firefighters. Developed 105 years ago, the system produces high pressure volumes of water to suppress fires. Instead of expanding the coverage of the system to protect the entire City, the SFPUC has decided to “reinvent the wheel” by changing to a system that uses a limited source - our drinking water - for firefighting.
SFPUC is hoping the Sunset Reservoir can be refilled 24 hours after an earthquake with Hetch Hetchy water from 167 miles away and piped up the peninsula along side of the San Andres fault... The ravages of fire will continue unless suppressed by water, lots and lots of water, when and where it is needed.”
It is time to demand that the City administrators and department heads do their job to bring the AWSS into every neighborhood in the City supplied with non-potable sources of water. Also, the policy setters and decision makers must prioritize completing the system now. They have already created a $37 BILLION ten year Capital Plan for 2020-2029 for all kinds of City improvements, without including a dime for expanding the original AWSS citywide. The capital funding priorities do not fully safeguard the City from post-earthquake fires.
The earthquake will break water connections to the little white hydrants on street corners, and break gas lines to wood frame buildings causing many simultaneous neighborhood fires. The Fire Department must not be restricted in suppressing fires due to a limited supply of water! But the SFPUC will do just that with their new plan to “protect” the Sunset and Richmond Districts by using the potable water in the Sunset Reservoir. There is not even a proposal on the drawing board for expanding fire protection into the southern parts of the City over to the Bayview, much less a timeline for completing it.
SFPUC is hoping the Sunset Reservoir can be refilled 24 hours after an earthquake with Hetch Hetchy water from 167 miles away and piped up the peninsula along side of the San Andres fault. Even if the water were to make it up to the City, there still is no backup plan to provide redundant sources of water during the time the reservoir is empty waiting to be filled, or being repaired. The ravages of fire will continue unless suppressed by water, lots and lots of water, when and where it is needed.
Firefighters need a dependable backup plan for water supply into the AWSS to serve every corner of the City. Seawater pumps at the ocean and bay can deliver water into the AWSS pipes and hydrants for as long as there is a fire to extinguish.
To understand what firefighters will be facing after an earthquake, look at the recent massive fire at Geary and Parker Streets after the gas explosion. It was only under control after three hours of firefighting. Then imagine an average of 100 or more such fires, many occurring simultaneously in the City. Finally realize there will be an insufficient amount of available water to suppress all the smaller fires before they become large conflagrations, if we approve the SFPUC’s plan to use finite sources of drinking water.
This calamity does not have to happen. As eye witnesses to the worst urban conflagration in U.S. history, voters eagerly approved money for an AWSS system dedicated to only fighting fires so that the 1906 devastation would not be repeated. It was completed in 1913 with 77 miles of pipelines and hydrants. The last expansion of the original system in 1995 brought the AWSS to 135 miles. Since then, there has been no progress in extending this fire protection to the rest of the City. Only smaller piecemeal projects have been built.
Mayor Breed has set a goal of building 5,000 units each year to combat the housing crisis. Since new housing is possible anywhere in the City, it follows that we should also have a matching plan to expand the AWSS to protect these new homes from fires. The Mayor is on record in the March 2018 Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon stating “As we move forward, the kinds of decisions that we make will impact our neighborhoods for generations to come so we have to do the right thing now and focus on quality, especially when we talk about infrastructure.”
Mayor Breed can accomplish both the housing goal and the quality infrastructure to serve neighborhoods by prioritizing extension of the dedicated auxiliary water system to suppress fires with multiple sources of water at this time. These actions can go hand in hand to ensure the new homes will be still be here after an earthquake.
We know what works. We don’t need to experiment with using one pipe to transport drinkable or non-drinkable water at different times. We don’t need to deplete our drinking water supplies when alternative sources exist. Finally, we can’t wait another 25 or 30 years before the entire City is protected from post-earthquake fires.
Nancy Wuerfel is a government fiscal analyst and served as a member of the Park, Recreation, Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) for 9 years.
|Marina fire in 1989|
The City does not have exclusive authority to use 79% of our locally stored water in three City reservoirs because a State Water Code mandates that we must share this water with peninsula customers in an emergency. But the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) is ignoring this law and telling us to rely on Sunset reservoir’s water for post-earthquake firefighting - as if the City did have unilateral rights to the water. They are even planning to ask voters to approve a General Obligation bond in 2020 to replace the reservoir’s water pipelines “to help fight fires,” knowing that the bond projects will not be guaranteed access to the water. The SFPUC knows all this, but continues to pursue its plan regardless of the truth.
The SFPUC has decided to use the reservoir’s drinking water to put out fires, even though we will need water for human uses in an emergency, and the reservoir does not have near enough water to fight the Santa Rosa style conflagrations that will occur in the Richmond and Sunset Districts. What will happen?”
In 2003, SFPUC Commissioner Jeffrey Chen wondered “what was really going to happen if things went bad” in a worst-case scenario following a major water emergency or earthquake. Now 15 years later in 2018, the SFPUC has made a disastrous decision that will ensure that things really will go bad after an earthquake by forcing the Fire Department to rely on a conditional and limited source of water at the Sunset reservoir.
The SFPUC has decided to use the reservoir’s drinking water to put out fires, even though we will need water for human uses in an emergency, and the reservoir does not have near enough water to fight the Santa Rosa style conflagrations that will occur in the Richmond and Sunset Districts. What will happen? We will end up burning like they did.
Finally, the reservoir water will not even be legally available for this ill-conceived project. The SFPUC has willfully disregarded the following facts:
1. San Francisco does not have exclusive use of the water in the City’s “terminal reservoirs” - Sunset, University Mound, and Merced Manor. The 2002 State Water Code 73503 requires that the SFPUC shall distribute water from the terminal reservoirs to customers “on an equitable basis” during any interruption in supply caused by earthquake, or other natural or manmade catastrophe. By law, our locally stored water must be “back flowed” down to the 27 peninsula customers and shared with them in an emergency. By contract, these regional customers have been paying the SFPUC for a portion of the essential repairs and improvements to these reservoirs for many years.
2. There is no formula in the State Water Code that defines how much water must be sent to the peninsula customers in an emergency, so the amount of water left in the City for either drinking or for firefighting is not known. The terminal reservoirs hold 79% of our stored water and all of it is jointly owned by the City and the peninsula customers. Less than one day’s worth of potable water - 85 million gallons that is locally stored - is exclusively owned by the City.
3. By State regulation, years of an extended drought could require reduction in the volume of water deliveries to our local reservoirs, which reduces the amount of potable water available after an earthquake. We must preserve for human uses the drinking water we have in the City, in case of drought restrictions or broken Hetch Hetchy supply lines from earthquakes. Our local reservoirs may not be filled to the brim when an emergency strikes.
4. A 2018 engineering report recommended that the SFPUC adopt “Option 12” to retrofit water pipeline mains from Sunset reservoir to supply water for fighting fires after an earthquake. However, it is clear from the report that the consultants were not informed about the legal obligations to share Sunset water with the peninsula customers in an emergency, or the possible restrictions on water delivery during drought years. There are no calculations showing that these reductions in reservoir water were factored into the final recommendation. SFPUC misled the engineers to believe that all 90 million gallons of Sunset’s north basin water was guaranteed to the firefighters. The option to build a pump station at the ocean to access this unlimited supply of water to suppress fires was not chosen.
5. Fire boats used to pump bay water cannot be used to pump ocean water because the strong ocean currents are unsafe for the boats. However, building a small pump station at the ocean can provide all the water firefighters would need and it would be readily available whenever required.
Since 1913, the northeastern and central parts of the City have been protected by the original Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS) that is an independent network of high-pressure, high-volume water pipes and hydrants designed to use the ocean as its primary source of water, and is 100% dedicated to putting out fires. San Francisco is the only place in the United States with this ingenious system. It works because we are surrounded by water and have designated AWSS reservoirs and water tanks to provide stored water.
Now it is time to protect the lives and property of the citizens in the western and southern residential neighborhoods by prioritizing expansion of the AWSS network into these underserved areas, and by accessing the ocean water at our doorstep.
We can save 15 neighborhoods from catastrophic destruction if we demand that the AWSS be completed now before a major earthquake strikes by using the 2020 issue of the Earthquake Safety and Emergency Response (ESER) bonds to finance it. City bonds must not be wasted on the SFPUC’s plan to replace pipelines to a reservoir that will not serve our firefighters’ need for water. Tell your supervisor you want real fire protection!
Nancy Wuerfel is a government fiscal analyst and served as a member of the Park, Recreation, Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) for 9 years .
Westside Burns After Earthquake could easily be the headline after a major earthquake hits the Bay Area, since the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) is now abandoning the brilliantly engineered Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS) designed immediately after the 1906 fire so that this devastation would not happen again. Very simply, AWSS is a network of pipes and hydrants dedicated to producing high water pressures and high water volumes to fight fires with locally sourced, non-potable water including unlimited seawater. That’s it! And, San Francisco is the only city in the United States with this system created to control conflagrations from becoming uncontrollable firestorms.
Yes, there are new cisterns in the street with a one-time use of water (not automatically refilled). Cisterns require 2 fire engines to use cistern water - one to pump water out and one to connect to the fire hoses to douse the fires within 1000 feet. There are 6 fire engines stationed in these two districts, so only 3 fires can be fought simultaneously. High pressure hydrants along 19th and 12th Avenues will be used as “fire breaks” to stop the spread of fires by ocean winds, rather than used to protect individual homes. When multiple fires in buildings continue to burn unabated, eventually conflagrations will develop, which then can merge together into a firestorm that could destroy major portions of the city.”
OPTION 12 IS NOT THE ANSWER
WATER! Unlimited amounts of water will put out fires. The SFPUC is ignoring this basic fact by deciding to limit Westside firefighting to only the amount of drinking water stored in the Sunset Reservoir. The SFPUC refuses to expand the tried and true AWSS system for fighting fires in favor of adopting Option 12 from a 2018 engineering report by AECOM. They are now experimenting on how to save lives and property with an unproven system based on a single source of potable water stored in the North Basin of the Sunset Reservoir.
Though the project is called a Potable Auxiliary Water Supply System (PAWSS), the SFPUC is denying us access to developing new, reliable auxiliary water sources, such as pumping seawater from the Pacific Ocean. Their hope is that the reservoir can be refilled after a quake in 24 hours from Hetch Hetchy located 167 miles away, and that the volume of fires will not be greater than the amount of water already stored, or that other fires will not erupt until after the reservoir is refilled.
The potable water in the South Basin is earmarked for domestic water use, but that basin is not seismically reinforced so it may not survive the shaking. Also as part of earthquake preparedness plan, the city has a map showing city reservoirs marked with the path of water inundation into the surrounding neighborhoods should a reservoir fail. The South Basin flooding would cover a large portion of the outer Sunset District down to the ocean.
There are 43,000 wood frame structures currently unprotected from post-earthquake conflagrations in the Richmond and Sunset Districts, and tens of thousands more in 13 other neighborhoods reaching from Seacliff to Parkmerced to the Bayview. At risk, are approximately 500,000 people living in these vulnerable neighborhoods without the AWSS extension.
Option 12 allocates all 90 million gallons of our drinking water from the North Basin to protecting some portions of the Sunset and Richmond districts. Yes, there are new cisterns in the street with a one-time use of water (not automatically refilled). Cisterns require 2 fire engines to use cistern water - one to pump water out and one to connect to the fire hoses to douse the fires within 1000 feet. There are 6 fire engines stationed in these two districts, so only 3 fires can be fought simultaneously. High pressure hydrants along 19th and 12th Avenues will be used as “fire breaks” to stop the spread of fires by ocean winds, rather than used to protect individual homes. When multiple fires in buildings continue to burn unabated, eventually conflagrations will develop, which then can merge together into a firestorm that could destroy major portions of the city.
That is why the city’s Westside will burn.
PUBLIC IS NOT PART OF DECISION MAKING
Decision for Option 12 was made behind closed doors by the Management Oversight Committee (the MOC) made up of 4 people from the SFPUC, Fire Department and Public Works Department. There are no agendas, no minutes, no public notice, and no public comment at their meetings. Once the MOC decides in private what projects they want to pursue, they design GO bonds to finance them, and staff performs “outreach” to inform the public of the decisions made to protect us from post-earthquake fires. The general public is never invited to provide input to recommendations BEFORE (or after) final decisions are made that affect our very lives. The Board of Supervisors may have hearings, but these are convened at their request, not by the SFPUC or Fire Department.
The public believes the Earthquake Safety and Emergency Response (ESER) GO bonds are just for our protection. We have been told this money would expand the AWSS into 15 underserved neighborhoods and upgrade the whole network. However, the current MOC decision is changing the bond use from financing a state-of-the-art firefighting network using unlimited local water, now to paying for replacement of aging SFPUC water transmission mains used to distribute domestic water and calling it PAWSS. The AECOM report even states part of the $20-$30 million cost for the new Sunset water mains will be transferred from water ratepayers to taxpayers. But the taxpayers are seriously short changed on fire protection by paying to replace SFPUC mains.
A VIABLE PLAN FOR THE WHOLE CITY
It has been 112 years since the 1906 great fire, and city departments have still not prioritized a citywide plan to protect all the existing residential neighborhoods from catastrophic fires. We know what needs to be done, having bought 3 engineering reports in 2009, 2014 and 2017. Option 12 is not acceptable and must be abandoned because it does not provide the level of fire protection needed. We have money in ESER GO bonds in 2020 and 2026. What we do not have is the leadership necessary to focus on actually finishing the AWSS infrastructure that will protect all neighborhoods, instead of approving projects piecemeal or district by district .
We should call upon Mayor Breed to provide that missing leadership to:
1) Create a Task Force, reporting to the Mayor’s Office, consisting of DPW engineers, fire professionals, SFPUC managers, and knowledgeable members of the public to participate in developing the infrastructure goals to be achieved for post-earthquake firefighting; the plan for projects that can deliver the goals citywide; identification of financing through ESER bonds and state and federal funding sources for projects; and the timeframes to complete the goals by 2027.
2) Request the Planning Department to increase the citywide Development Impact Fees to include a charge for extending the original AWSS network with identified water sources into new housing developments so that the city can use these funds to perform the work according the AWSS standards.
3) Request the Board of Supervisors to have annual hearings on the progress towards completing the citywide work by 2027, and reporting to the Mayor any circumstances that prevent this goal from being achieved.
The Westside does not have to burn if we act to prioritize finishing preparations now for the next Big One with unlimited supplies of water.
Nancy Wuerfel is a government fiscal analyst and served as a member of the Park, Recreation Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) for 9 years. Grateful thanks for the technical expertise provided by Thomas W. Doudiet, retired assistant deputy chief, SF Fire Department.
|A saltwater pump station to fight fires can be built underground adjacent to the ocean so that the landscape above is not distrubed.|
If the Bay Area does experience a magnitude 7.8 earthquake for which plans are being formulated, San Francisco will need an unlimited volume of water for firefighting and a sufficient volume of drinkable water to support an estimated daytime city population of 1.3 million people that could be unable to leave the city. As we prepare for the Big One, it is wrong to allocate our clean water to be the primary source of water for fire suppression in the western parts of the city.
A 7.8 magnitude earthquake is 30 times more powerful than the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake during which there were 27 fires in the city within an hour. How many fires do you suppose the SF Fire Department will have to fight following an earthquake that is 30 times more powerful?”
The SFPUC has decided to fight fires in the Richmond and Sunset Districts using only Hetch Hetchy water from the Sunset Reservoir. Relying on this finite source of water is wrong for three important reasons: (a) it is a limited supply of water that may be insufficient for the number and intensity of fires that will occur; (b) this potable water will be in short supply for drinking and sanitation needs after the fires are out; and (c) there is no guarantee that the emptied reservoir can be refilled in a timely manner because the water transport lines from Hetch Hetchy into the city must cross three major East Bay earthquake faults, and then run for over 25 miles along the San Andreas Fault up the peninsula to the reservoir.
A 7.8 magnitude earthquake is 30 times more powerful than the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake during which there were 27 fires in the city within an hour. How many fires do you suppose the SF Fire Department will have to fight following an earthquake that is 30 times more powerful?
We can calculate how insufficient the reservoir water volume actually is if we look at how much water was needed to extinguish the 2014 Mission Bay fire that consumed an entire city block. It was publicly reported that this fire required 15 million gallons of water. With only the north basin of Sunset Reservoir being seismically reinforced, it has just 90 million gallons of water available. This means that there would only be enough water to fight six one-block fires using the Mission Bay fire as a model, without leaving any potable reserves.
In the areas of Outer Richmond, Outer Sunset, and Sea Cliff, there are 750 square blocks of wood-frame buildings. Considering the likelihood of breakages in residential gas lines, it is shortsighted to suggest that the city's western side should be restricted in its volume of firefighting water, and prepare for fighting only six one-block fires in a 24 hour period. The SFPUC has not committed to providing any more water sources than the Sunset Reservoir and the water contained in the street cisterns. They hope to replenish these tanks, but getting the water from Hetch Hetchy is not guaranteed.
There is an unlimited source of water in the ocean. The SFPUC should include funding in the 2020 earthquake safety bond for building a pump station in the Richmond District adjacent to the ocean to draw water into the extended high pressure hydrant system known as the Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS) for firefighting. This will preserve our drinking water for people in separate pipes.
Next, we need another water source for the southern neighborhoods. The SFPUC should include funding in the next safety bond for building a pump station at Lake Merced to access this total of 2 billion gallons of non-drinkable water for backup to firefighting in the 15 under-protected neighborhoods.
One hundred years ago our city engineers had the common sense to build seawater pump stations and a high volume hydrant system in the northern and eastern parts of the city that are still in service today. Is San Francisco still "The City That Knows How", or is San Francisco the City that knew how, but has now forgotten?
Nancy Wuerfel is a government fiscal analyst and served as a member of the Park, Recreation Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) for 9 years.
Last month Westside Observer readers were provided with a litany of proposals, promises, concerns and questions about the auxiliary water supply system (AWSS) extension into the western and southern neighborhoods to fight fires after a major earthquake. The Board of Supervisors at the March 15, 2017 Government Oversight Committee meeting requested that an independent consultant be engaged to report on the water system, to assess the alternatives, and to prepare a study of the comparative costs. This report will be finished by the end of December, so the public discussion of methods and projects will continue with a new analysis.
The issue of fighting fires is a matter of having sufficient water available and a delivery system in place to meet the demand. The reservoirs need to be intact or fully backed up, otherwise what good are the pipes without the water?”
However, a critical part of this debate is missing: Where will the water come from if a key reservoir fails as a result of the earthquake? Current plans do contain multiple redundant water supply systems dedicated to firefighting from separate sources through various delivery methods, but are these enough?
There is no separate analysis that identifies backup sources specific to replacing a large quantity of firefighting water that floods out of any of the three very important reservoirs as a result of damage from an earthquake — the Sunset, Sutro and University Mound reservoirs.
This potential water loss is especially problematic if damage is done to the high capacity Sunset north or south basins, which store potable water intended to be pumped into the AWSS system through a plan that uses the reservoir for both drinking water and firefighting.
What dedicated sources are there to replace the volume of water lost from a damaged Sunset basin? Will water from Lake Merced be enough? Should we plan to install the necessary infrastructure near the ocean to facilitate use of fireboats to pump seawater into the AWSS to save the Sunset and Richmond from conflagration?
The city’s 2014 Hazard Mitigation Plan states “the probability of a failure involving dams or reservoirs located in or owned by CCSF is unknown.” Also, the plan concludes “the exact extent of potential flood inundation due to reservoir failure in San Francisco is unknown” (page 54, 55, emphasis added). The 2014 Plan relies on maps drawn in the 1970’s to calculate potential flood inundation. These maps need to be updated to reflect current neighborhood changes and the many improvements made to the city’s reservoirs.
On a brighter note, the Sunset, Sutro, and University Mound reservoirs are designated as dams and are under the jurisdiction of the Division of Safety of Dams (DSOD). As such, they are inspected annually by State inspectors to ensure the structural integrity of the reservoir remains within state and federal performance standards. In addition, SFPUC staff performs weekly visual monitoring of the reservoirs’ structural integrity to ensure they continue to meet required state standards. Regarding the Sunset Reservoir, SFPUC staff state: Based on these inspections, the reservoir has proved to be in good shape and meets all required state and federal standards.” Will this be the true after an earthquake?
The issue of fighting fires is a matter of having sufficient water available and a delivery system in place to meet the demand. The reservoirs need to be intact or fully backed up, otherwise what good are the pipes without the water?
Nancy Wuerfel is a government fiscal analyst and served as a member of the Park, Recreation Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) for 9 years.
Funding is the name of the game for San Francisco’s ambitious Department of Environment (SFE) which is now maneuvering to get the Mayor to allow the agency to draw funds directly from the City’s already over-committed discretionary General Fund.
The SFE currently is a City enterprise agency. This means that it has to be financially self-sufficient, generating its own revenue without subsidies from the General Fund. The Public Utilities Commission (PUC), the San Francisco International Airport, and the Port of San Francisco are all enterprise agencies.
If SFE becomes a “General Fund department” and annually takes a cut from the City’s shrinking discretionary money, other City agencies such as the libraries, Recreation and Park, Human Services Agency, Public Health, Children Youth and Families, plus several more departments will start to receive less annual funding. The City services that people depend on will foot the bill to pay for SFE.
SFE grew from its creation in the revised 1995 City Charter with a budget of $281,000 in 1997 to presently a $20 million operation. It employs over 100 people and occupies a rented 24,400 sq ft space at 1455 Market Street”
Unlike other City enterprise agencies, the SFE is empire building, and refuses to cut back on employees, expenses or projects even though its revenue does not cover its costs. The result is currently a budget shortfall and SFE wants a City bail out.
SF Environment’s Financial Mismanagement
Financial mismanagement was revealed at the January 27th Commission on the Environment meeting to approve the 2015-2016 SFE budget. The budget was sent to the Commission with funding gaps in salaries and unfunded obligations for employees’ benefits, referred to as “structural problems.” There was no discussion of hiring freezes, layoffs or cutting programs to balance the budget.
During the meeting, the Commissioners did discuss various strategies for enticing the Mayor to make SFE a “General Fund Department” to backfill the gaps. Then they approved the budget, even though it was unbalanced. The Charter requires Commission approval before a budget is submitted to the Mayor.
To understand the department’s mismanagement, one needs to know that SFE grew from its creation in the revised 1995 City Charter with a budget of $281,000 in 1997 to presently a $20 million operation. It employs over 100 people and occupies a rented 24,400 sq ft space at 1455 Market Street in order to house everyone.
SFE gets 46% ($9,389,000) of its revenue from grants. This is an enormous amount of their budget that varies from year to year. The funding that many staff rely on is not guaranteed. Also, many grants do not pay for all the staff benefits the City affords its employees, so these costs are shifted to other funding sources by bending the rules.
Frequently, grants do not pay for indirect costs. These indirect costs include such things as the $756,000 that SFE pays annually for rent, with a remodeling loan financed at 8%. There are other administrative expenses that bring the total to $4 million a year. When grants do not pay for indirect costs, they must be absorbed by other funding sources.
Now those other funding sources cannot sustain underwriting all the grants, so it’s City Hall to the rescue.
The culture of SFE has not reflected a desire to be a fiscally responsible enterprise department with a sound business plan. Why would they be any better at managing money if they were a General Fund Department? There is no oversight by anybody, including City Hall.
SFE could curtail some financing problems by stopping the practice of hiring long term costly City employees with short term grant funding. For example, last July SFE got the Mayor’s approval to convert four staff from temporary employees to permanent status with all the benefits that includes. Now SFE is advertising for another new permanent employee in the salary range of $84,000 - $102,000, knowing this adds to ITS deficit.
Grants can be used to hire independent contractors without City benefits to perform SFE’s work, instead of hiring employees with benefits. When the grant money ends, so does the need to pay somebody. Problem solved.
The rest of the $20 million budget comes from other City departments who contribute 9% ($1,752,000) to SFE in the form of work orders, and from the Solid Waste Management Program (SWMP) for 45% ($9,323,000). The SWMP money is a fee added to the residential garbage rates renegotiated whenever the Recology rates are periodically increased. SFE tells Recology how much money to collect on behalf of the City, and this sum is then part of the rates. The Refuse Rate Board always approves whatever SFE asks.
The Plan To Fool The Mayor
At the same January 27th meeting where the budget was approved, the Commission heard a presentation by a Mayor’s Budget Office staff member on the Controller’s 5 year financial plan to the year 2020. It projects a shortfall of $15.9 million for next year’s budget, and that expenditures are continuing to grow faster than revenue. Because the 5 year plan is presenting a “recession scenario,” the city proposes to curb growth and increase revenues.
The Commissioners heard these words of warning, ignored them, and decided that now is the ideal time to get on the City’s gravy train, before the financial picture gets any worse. Then they discussed various strategies for convincing the Mayor to make SFE a General Fund Department. Since the Mayor referred to SFE programs in his recent State of the City speech, they decided he could be manipulated into providing funds for them.
Previously, at the Operations Committee meeting on January 21st, Commissioners talked about ideas for getting the General Funds:
1. Commissioners discussed the need for more funds and how to get their expensive City Attorney fees paid with City money. They assume that becoming a General Fund Department with just “a dollar” allocation will automatically provide SFE with a large budget appropriation to pay these fees. This is a primary reason for pursuing General Funds.
Commission President Arce: “We have to get General Fund [money] period. Why? It solves the City Attorney problem. If we get $1 we get an allocation. Right? So we have to win. We have to get in there [into the General Fund budget].”
2. Commissioners discussed what would be the best way to justify and sell to the Mayor a request for General Fund money. Would it be by asking for either “discretionary” funding to pay for expenses, or for a to-be-determined “program component”, or both reasons?
Commission President Arce: “We can work hard on this to make it happen. And that’s what we’re here for as Commissioners, to work all kinds of little angles and stuff.” - including fooling the Mayor.
3. Commissioners discussed how to make their SFE budget proposal look better, “create a buzz,” and be more appealing to the Mayor by parroting back the ideas from his recent State of the City speech.
Commission President Arce: “We just say the exact same words. We just copy and paste from the shared prosperity agenda [from the Mayor’s speech] and put it into our proposal for General Fund [money]. We’ll get it. Period.”
At the January 27th meeting, Director Deborah Raphael reported that she had already had discussions with Kate Howard, Director of the Mayor’s Budget Office, about the importance of General Fund money for SFE and thanked the office for their support in this effort. Clearly, this idea is now being discussed behind closed doors on the second floor of City Hall.
It is important to note that the Commission made no effort to get any public opinion on this controversial decision to cease being an enterprise department. The topic was never on any Commission agenda. This is exactly the kind of issue that the Sunshine Ordinance intended to keep in front of the public at all times with full disclosure. That did not happen.
SFE has been left to its own devices and is now out of control. They want funding from the taxpayers as well as from the ratepayers with no oversight.
The City needs to audit SFE’s fiscal practices and business plan long before considering giving them any taxpayer money, and to decide what procedural changes need to be made. Detailed financial oversight from the City is definitely required for all of SFE’s funding sources.
SFE needs to balance the books and live within its revenue restrictions. It should not be rewarded with general funds to cover up poor management of grants.
SFE should hire independent contractors on grants, rather than City employees.
SFE should faithfully apply the Commission-approved Guidelines for Use of the funds from the Solid Waste Management Program, with periodic City audits of the expenditures for compliance.
New activities should not be accepted without the underwriting to finance them. If necessary, other City departments can take on programs SFE has trouble funding.
SFE needs a viable fund raising plan to endow the department, and then needs to implement it.
The Commission on the Environment needs to agendize all fiscal matters according to the Sunshine Ordinance. Major financial decisions are discussed without being clearly publicized in violation of the Ordinance and Brown Act, and without inviting an informed public to comment. Financial matters need full disclosure and transparency.
The Mayor needs to immediately fill two vacancies on the Commission on the Environment with people who have experience in overseeing multimillion dollar business operations and have a working knowledge of fund raising and grants.
Nancy Wuerfel, a government fiscal analyst, served as a member of the Park, Recreation Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) for 9 years as an appointee of 3 District 4 Supervisors, George Wooding is a Westside Observer Investigative Reporter.
It’s budget season down at City Hall, so most citizens could use some help understanding the ways the Mayor proposes to spend our $8,567,000,000 budget.
Over half of the budget will be used to pay for salaries and benefits of the 28,497 city employees, totaling $4,331,000,000. The average expense per employee is $151,985 (this is not a typo, see page 24 of proposed budget). The rest of the money will be spent in cost categories listed as “Non-personnel” Operating Costs - 22.6%; Debt Service - 11.5%; Capital & Equipment - 5.5%; Grants - 4.8%; Aid Assistance - 4.2%; Reserves - 2.6%; Facilities Maintenance - 0 .8%; with a “credit” of 2.6% from Recoveries and Overhead.
…since the Board of Supervisors must approve the budget in July, one can assume that your Supervisor understands it well enough to explain it to you if you have any questions.”
The expenses of the 52 city departments are grouped into 6 broad categories, plus the behind-the-scenes catchall of “General City Responsibilities” that funds the expenses we voters approve such as GO Bond debt service, retirees health benefits trust fund, reserves, grants, and many more obscure fiscal costs. The table shows the proposed budget allocations (all amounts are rounded) with the number of funded positions. Please note that the most often cited category of “where your taxes go” - Culture and Recreation (libraries, parks, museums) - has the least amount of funding.
If you need more detail on the budget, the whole thing is online through the Controller’s Office website. Also, since the Board of Supervisors must approve the budget in July, one can assume that your Supervisor understands it well enough to explain it to you if you have any questions.
Ms. Wuerfel is a government fiscal analyst and served for 9 years on the Park, Recreation, Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC).
There are plans afoot (or should we say a-car) to make northbound traffic on 19th Avenue more congested than it already is. The MTA is floating plans to move the bus stop for the northbound #28 - 19th Avenue bus and the northbound #29 Sunset bus, to a small sliver of land inside Golden Gate Park (GGP).
Currently, these buses stop at the gas station on 19th Avenue, where there is a parking lane for them to pull out of traffic. Sometimes two #28 buses at a time are lined up there. When the #29 bus is added to the mix, three buses can arrive at the same time.
Putting a bus stop inside GGP with the attendant new paving and bus shelter, is yet another loss of our precious parkland. The proposed location next to the magnificent, monumental gates at Lincoln Way and 19th Avenue is particularly inappropriate.Traffic-wise, it doesn't make sense either. There is no extra lane in the park for buses to pull out of the traffic lanes, thereby stopping vehicles behind a bus. What will be the impact on northbound traffic when two #28 buses together have to stop in the traffic lane going north inside GGP, OR when a third #29 bus is added to the mix?
Intensify this traffic nightmare with the cars that turn right from Lincoln Way northbound onto 19th Avenue, in between pedestrians crossing. How will cars or pedestrians deal with one, two, or three buses stopped in the middle of traffic?
This proposal moves a major bus stop from a well-lighted, visible corner at a 24-hour gas station to an area inside the Park and behind the large corner pillars. How safe will riders feel at night, as they wait for the buses that come — well, when they come.
What about people who transfer from the #28 bus or the #29 bus to the #71 bus going eastbound? With the current bus stop location, they can walk a few feet to the #71 bus without crossing a street. With the new plan, all transferring riders will have to cross Lincoln Way, including those in wheelchairs. Even a new handicap ramp will not diminish the increased risk of this extra crossing at a corner that has what could be conservatively described as having intense traffic issues.
Please let the MTA and Rec and Park know that they need to rethink this plan to gum up traffic and mar a major entrance to Golden Gate Park. You can contact them at: email@example.com or Recpark.Commission@sfgov.org
The Golden Gate Park Preservation Alliance is also interested in the public's opinions on this project. Please copy them on your letters. firstname.lastname@example.org
Nancy Wuerfel, Parkside
Great public suggestions to the rescue! At the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) Site Alternatives Workshop on December 9, many practical ideas were put forth to save Golden Gate Park (GGP) from industrialization.
This is a win-win situation. The new proposals illuminate ways of placing the water treatment plant on land already under the jurisdiction of the SFPUC, so that the integrity of the GGP’s valuable parkland will be respected as the cultural and environmental resource that it is. Wildlife habitat will also be preserved by maintaining the many trees slated to be removed to make room for the factory.
The two most attractive ideas are locating the facility either at the Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant (OWPCP) on the Great Highway or at the underutilized Sunset Circle parking lot at Lake Merced.
...placing the water treatment plant on land already under the jurisdiction of the SFPUC, so that the integrity of the GGP’s valuable parkland will be respected as the cultural and environmental resource that it is.”
Each location has unique advantages. The OWPCP is the source of the secondary water that will be treated into recycled water, and was the original choice for the plant to produce tertiary level water. More space is needed to manufacture the higher-level reverse osmosis (RO) water. The OWPCP site can also support RO treatment, by splitting the processing units to two adjacent areas. Placing the new facilities next to the effluent source could save construction costs and consolidate operation expenses.
The Sunset Circle site is a little larger than the area needed at the GGP site, so it can produce the same amount and type of water, utilizing a “green” building design for a facility that is integrated into the natural setting. There’s even room for a parking lot or a visitors center. Other bonuses include its close proximity to the Oceanside Plant and direct access to existing roads. Below: Sunshe Circle looking East.
This site’s best advantage is its inland location that reduces impacts from tsunami risk and sea level rise on the new facility. Also, this proposal can save Hetch Hetchy water by directing recycled water to keep Sunset Boulevard green — a savings not part of the current GGP plan.
We can use a parking lot to save a park.
Either alternative location will relieve the ratepayers from forever paying the added cost of leasing park property for the treatment plant. Either will avert delaying the whole project because of the extra time needed to get voter approval to build a non-recreational structure in GGP as required by the Charter, and then to redesign a facility for another site anyways after the measure fails. Below Oceanside looking West.
This recycled water project is already $26 million over budget and 13 months late. Part of this cost overrun is because of the unplanned decision to produce the highest quality of recycled water through RO treatment, a process that is 8 times more costly than producing regular water. The SFPUC has not justified the need for and use of the RO water for general irrigation purposes, much less the extra costs to fabricate it. Even the premier golf course at Harding Park will be using the less expensive tertiary recycled water supplied by Daly City.
Finally, when the free ground water in GGP is siphoned off to dilute our Hetch Hetchy drinking water in the Sunset Reservoir, the entire park’s irrigation will be relying on this very expensive water. This will be like watering the grass with diamonds!
Many other proposals generated at the December 9 meeting are contributing to finding an alternative to using our GGP historic resource and open space. The SFPUC engineers are considering them all and will report back at the public workshop on February 15, 5:30 PM, 4th floor, 1155 Market St. Please join the discussion.
Nancy Wuerfel, a fiscal analyst by profession, has been a member of the Park, Recreation and Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) since 2002
Harding Golf Clubhouse built from funds intended for the “most heavily populated and most economically disadvantaged area”
The sequence of events that led to the city’s renovation of this classic golf course on beautiful Lake Merced, and its possible give-away to private entities unknown, provides a cautionary tale for all San Franciscans. The Recreation and Park Department’s (RPD) mishandling of golf money—misleading the public about Harding’s future, then making a bad deal for the city with a long-term contract—concludes RPD’s decade of deception.
WARNING Be wary when the government promises to construct a civic improvement by making an agreement with the people, crafted solely to secure public financing support, which the government then subsequently ignores with impunity.
THE DEAL Ten years ago an arrangement fell apart to have a private golf company provide the money to renovate Harding and Fleming golf courses. Subsequently, RPD, golfers, well-intentioned citizens, and politicians crafted a covenant and financing plan to refurbish both courses. The “Guiding Principles” for Harding’s future approved by the Recreation and Park Commission silenced the critics. The promises reassured everyone that the restored site would always remain—first and foremost—a municipal golf course, affordable, available to city residents, and maintained by city gardeners.
The clincher was the city’s “foolproof” self-financing plan: borrow money and repay it from future golf revenue. The “Golf Fund Ordinance” passed, requiring RPD to control all golf revenues and to use that money according to the new law’s clear list of spending priorities through a special city account. The law allowed for procurement of a construction loan to be made from public funds and prescribed how it would be repaid. The Golf Fund could also rejuvenate the other city owned golf courses using the additional income that Harding Park would bring in. Optimistically, even neighborhood parks could benefit from excess golf revenue as the final priority.
THE BAIT AND SWITCH With the key political and monetary elements in place and PGA TOUR experts donating the new design of Harding Park, the project was approved. What could go wrong? Plenty! The initial project cost went from $16 million to $24 million. The course drainage plan was seriously flawed—so much so, that a chunk of the course fell into Lake Merced after the first heavy rain — a $2,435,000 setback. Then, the unexplained size increase of the clubhouse from 10,000 to 20,000 sq ft —a $3,592,000 setback. Then, the maintenance facility had cost overruns—another $1,436,000 setback. Then came a decision to build a new cart barn—$311,000, etc., etc.
The $8.3 million deficit was to be made up from both State bond money and private sources, but contributions fell short. So, $1.4 million was misappropriated from the newly formed Golf Fund to fill the gap. So much for the spending controls. RPD decided NOT to implement the city law protecting the Golf Fund money so it could take what it needed to rebuild Harding. Since RPD’s initial abuse of the Fund, it has continued to ignore the law’s inconvenient management requirements. Next, they claimed that “golf does not make money,” and manipulated the General Fund for subsidies to balance the budget! Recently, RPD decided it “must” create new fees to backfill that hole, ergo charging to enter Strybing Arboretum.
RPD was supposed to manage the Golf Fund to allow for repayment of a portion of construction capital into the Open Space Fund. It was agreed that $18 million ($15 million of State bond funds and $3 million from Open Space) would be borrowed for the project to be repaid with interest. Never mind that the State money was intended to support projects in the “most heavily populated and most economically disadvantaged areas” of the city, it was used instead to pay for the Harding golf project. RPD promised to use the repaid loan money for the original State-specified purposes to benefit the less fortunate, but RPD never did so. Instead this year, they raided this special reserve fund to hand $1 million to the Mayor to offset the deficit.
THE GIVE-AWAY In 2002 the city agreed to bring PGA Championship tournaments to the renewed Harding Park. At the time RPD emphatically stated “the PGA TOUR Championship is a means, not an end” and “the PGA TOUR has never suggested or offered to take over control of the Harding-Fleming golf complex.” But now RPD has invited them to take over managing the $8 million gross revenue Harding golf course by selecting the PGA TOUR as the winner of a contract bid.
RPD has awarded a sweetheart agreement to PGA TOUR Golf Course Properties, Inc. with lucrative incentive payments based on golf revenue. These payments are in violation of the priorities of the Golf Fund Ordinance. It commits the city to daily standards of grounds maintenance the PGA TOUR has yet to define, and the Golf Fund must finance them or suffer the consequences. There are many loopholes and conditions that benefit the contractor to the city’s detriment. The fox is now officially in charge of the chicken coop.
Real accountability in the contract is nonexistent, since the Recreation and Park Commission is noticeably absent from approving key financial decisions, as required by law. It is not even clear who the contractor is, since the PGA TOUR can hand over this Management Agreement to any of its “affiliates” with the mere consent of the General Manager or his designee.
The Golf Fund legislation is not just a good idea, it is the only thing that protects city land from being privatized and preserves it for future public use. The fruits of municipal golfing should benefit the other courses and the adjacent neighborhood parks as we were promised, not an outside contractor. Now is the time to closely examine and revise this new legal commitment the RPD is asking the city to make with entities unknown, that could last indefinitely, and bankrupt the Golf Fund.
Nancy Wuerfel, a fiscal analyst by profession, has been a member of the Park, Recreation and Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) since 2002