Marina Fire
Neighborhood fire preparedness needs to be considered as the State sets the future water plan

The Truth About San Francisco's Water

Nancy Wuerfel
Nancy Wuerfel

These comments are not about the quality of our drinking water. These comments are about the way the provider of our water, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), works - and doesn't work.

Earthquakes, climate change, and drought cause fires. Water suppresses fires. San Francisco is surrounded on three sides by water - yet today, over half the City is still not protected against catastrophic fires because the SFPUC has refused to expand the independent Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS) that is designed to use unlimited seawater.

The Urban Water Management Plan—UWMP

The SFPUC, as a State regulated water carrier, is responsible for providing water to all San Francisco customers and for all municipal uses, including firefighting. However, as well regulated as the SFPUC is, the Water Enterprise continues to operate without full transparency and accountability to the public.

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The California Constitution declares that “the general welfare requires that the water resources of the State be put to beneficial use to the fullest extent of which they are capable ...” and “that the conservation of such waters is to be exercised ...”

The UWMP is a Big Deal because it serves as the legal and technical water management foundation for all water suppliers throughout California …

The State legislates regulations for water carriers (i.e., SFPUC) and the Department of Water Resources oversees these laws on behalf of the public welfare. In 1983 the California Legislature enacted the "Urban Water Management Planning Act (UWMP) “that requires an urban water supplier to update its UWMP every five years with current data on water availability and demands, with plans to prepare for droughts, seismic events, and climate changes affecting water supplies.”

The Governor is responsible for ensuring that state laws are enforced and is empowered to take emergency actions for situations requiring immediate attention, such as he did on May 10th when he declared a drought emergency and called upon “all Californians to help meet this challenge by stepping up their efforts to save water.”

The San Francisco Charter states that all commissions “shall approve goals, objectives, plans and programs and set policies consistent with the overall objectives of the City and County...” and that specifically the SFPUC “shall have charge of ... the use and control of all water and energy supplies and utilities of the City...”. 

Ocean.
San Francisco is surrounded on three sides with ocean water

Water Managers and Staff and the Truth

This is a partial list of the governing entities, laws, legal powers and duties for the SFPUC. While the Commission sets the policies, departmental managers and staff develop the goals, objectives, plans and programs brought to the Commission for approval. However, the Water Enterprise managers and staff have not always told the public the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about their plans. 

Senior managers control the narrative of their plans by failing to publicly reveal SFPUC's true objectives, or by misleading decision makers by releasing only partial details of proposed projects, or by willfully ignoring an inconvenient section of the Water Code, or by secretly marginalizing our redundant water delivery system that has protected the City for over 100 years.

The Commission cannot perform its duties when the truth is withheld from them. Many controversial Water Enterprise objectives are never approved by the Commission because they were never asked to do so. Managers preparing plans and reports cherry-pick the facts, hide negative implications, omit critical details, or fundamentally change projects in midstream which compromises the Commission's ability to make informed decisions. No one is served well by deflecting Commissioners from understanding the ramifications of the proposals before them.

June 8th - Mark your calendar

One of the most important duties currently before the Commission is the adoption of the final 2020 Urban Water Management Plan (UWMP). By law, the SFPUC must update its UWMP every five years and tailor the revised Plan to reflect the local conditions of the City. The Plan offers an opportunity for the SFPUC to inform its customers, other water suppliers, and local and state governmental bodies of San Francisco's water supply and demand conditions with a consistent and comprehensive analysis that includes the community in the planning.

On June 8th the updated Plan will be presented to the Commission for adoption. Approved Plans must be submitted to the Department of Water Resources in Sacramento by July 1, 2021. The UWMP is a Big Deal because it serves as the legal and technical water management foundation for all water suppliers throughout California, functions as the long-range resource planning document to ensure adequate water supplies are available to meet existing and future demands for water, and addresses statewide issues of concern such as Governor Newsom's call for our help “to save water.”

Unfortunately, the SFPUC draft Plan is incomplete by not citing the AWSS exists and saves potable water, and it inaccurately describes “the site conditions and characteristics unique to San Francisco water use.” Guidelines recommend that these unique situations requiring further explanation beyond the statutory criteria be detailed in the 2020 UWMP. I submitted to the SFPUC the following requests to revise the City's UWMP to comply with the invitation for clarifications.

Requisites for a complete plan

1) To include as part of the history of the City's water supply, the AWSS that was built after the 1906 earthquake and fire that accesses seawater for firefighting that still functions today;

2) To record the fact that Mayor Newsom transferred in 2010 the functions, physical assets, and civil service employees of the AWSS from the Fire Department to the SFPUC;

3) To acknowledge that the AWSS may revert to the Fire Department under conditions specified in the transfer notice;

4) To preserve the name of the AWSS as the unique San Francisco entity that functions as the secondary high-pressure firefighting system that uses non-potable water and seawater;

5) To acknowledge that the Emergency Firefighting Water System (EFWS) functions as the primary low-pressure firefighting system that uses potable drinking water;

6) To list as part of the City's water system description, the AWSS assets of the Twin Peaks Reservoir, two storage tanks, 230 cisterns,135 miles of pipelines, and 1889 high pressure hydrants;

7) To include in the City's account of existing sources of water to fight fires, the 30,000,000 gallons of non-potable water stored locally throughout the AWSS network which saves using 30,000,000 gallons of potable water;

8) To include in the City's list of future local supplies, the 1,200,000,000 gallons of non-potable water in Lake Merced to be used for firefighting, citing the actions that the SFPUC will take to prevent contamination of the potable water system when using water supplied from Lake Merced;

9) To include the AWSS and its use of seawater as part of the SFPUC's conservation practices that save potable water and provide customer benefits; 

10) To acknowledge and inform the public that the SFPUC must comply with Water Code Section 73503 that requires distribution of water from three San Francisco reservoirs, including Sunset Reservoir, to be made to San Francisco and peninsula customers on an equitable basis if an earthquake interrupts the water supply, which then restricts the amount of locally available water for City uses.

Water is always a serious matter, and no more so than today with so many environmental challenges. The public, the decision makers, and the public officials all need to be told the honest truth about San Francisco's water by those who are in charge of it - the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. We are waiting for the answers.

 

Nancy Wuerfel is a government fiscal analyst and served as a member of the Park, Recreation, Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) for 9 years.

June 2021



Don't Mess With Lowell!

Lowell Student Body

What happened at Lowell is not an isolated attack. ... it is happening because of our increased awareness of  inequitable opportunities for many black and brown children. But let’s not jump to a solution without properly analyzing the problem.

Check it out

Street Crisis Team

Street Crisis Response Team

Peacekeeping Without Policemen

There was a time when unsettling public disturbances were addressed by calling the cops. Peace Officers kept communal peace. That formula no longer works."

Check it out

recall candidates

Recall, Rescind, & Recapitulation

...it appears that approximately 2,100,000 signers ensures a recall election in 2021. ... such a recall election permits consolidation of a recall commenced last month to remove District Attorney Chesa Boudin ..."

Check it out

DowntownTraffic

Congestion Pricing — Hangover from Better Days?

Now that many of San Francisco’s employers are allowing work from home, San Franciscans are leaving in large numbers to live in homes with more space in places like Tracy, California — and for half the price.”

Check it out

Vintage Typewriter

No to Newsom Recall

Mr. Hall: Not only was Governor Newsom handling twice the population of NY  — there were 9,639 wildfires burning ...”

Read More ...

No to Legalized Drugs

Dr. Kerr, San Francisco has already tried that. ... drug dealing and drug use has led to a de facto legalization for several years. ”

Read More ...

Boycott deYoung Museum

I am disappointed that staff are calling in support of a private, for-profit vendor based in St. Louis, MO, with no transparency, and SF Parks Alliance, a private non-profit.”

Read More ...

recology monopoly

Recology's Mea Culpa — not enough!

The proper course of action for ratepayers is a simple repeal of the 1932 monopoly ordinance and substitution of an ordinance requiring garbage contracts to be competitively bid.

Check it out


fire at a hospital
Safety includes fire preparedness, something UCSF should consider carefully

UCSF: DON'T TAKE CITY FIRE PROTECTION FOR GRANTED!

Nancy Wuerfel
Nancy Wuerfel.

The Westside Observer’s January 2021 article "Supes to Regents:  Hold on a minute buckaroo!" isn't the whole story of the mishandling of public input and missed opportunity to draft a truly beneficial MOU between UCSF and the City.  The whole process of receiving, recording and acting on public comment for either crafting the terms for the MOU or for discussing the many community impacts of UCSF's major expansion plans has been inadequate at every level.

UCSF Violated its own Rules

LRPD
2014 LRDP

UCSF violated its own rules described in the Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) Overarching Principles. UCSF is supposed to consult with the community before decisions are made "to intensify use of existing property because of potential negative effects of UCSF's development."  When intensification happens, UCSF is to discuss and agree on impacts with the neighborhoods so that potential "cushioning actions" [including money] can be identified to offset those impacts. Then everything is documented in a formal agreement between UCSF, the community groups, and the City. This did not happen.

The Berkeley-UC Precedent

I was motivated by Mayor Breed's interest in drafting a new MOU between the City and UCSF that will describe the commitments of both parties and processes for moving forward.  I was invited to participate by the LRDP Overarching Principle that values community consultation about UCSF's physical development plans for both on- and off-campus sites. I was encouraged to learn from Mayor Breed that the new MOU would be analogous with other campus-city agreements here and in nearby cities that deal with campus expansion plans. Then I was thrilled to read the City of Berkeley-University of California Agreement that included UC paying money every year to Berkeley for fire and emergency services and equipment, capital improvements, including maintenance and repair of equipment. The Berkeley Agreement is a precedent for the City to require UCSF to offset our currently unreimbursed City costs that will continue to mount as UCSF expands its population and physical structures.

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... the City of Berkeley-University of California Agreement that included UC paying money every year to Berkeley for fire and emergency services and equipment, capital improvements, including maintenance and repair of equipment. The Berkeley Agreement is a precedent for the City to require UCSF to offset our currently unreimbursed City costs that will continue to mount as UCSF expands its population and physical structures”

...

MOU Opportunity

Here is our chance with the MOU for the City to negotiate with UCSF to start paying for the currently free services provided by the San Francisco Fire Department after all these years! State institutions are exempt from paying property taxes by our state constitution. So, the normal way that taxes are collected to pay for city services does not apply to UCSF. They also benefit from improvements financed by our voter-approved General Obligation Bonds, but they do not pay anything towards the debt service on those bonds. So, the City should also ask UCSF to contribute funds to the general obligation bond project that expands the auxiliary water supply system (AWSS) of high pressure pipelines, hydrants, and non-potable water into the unprotected western parts of the city, so that the Parnassus Heights campus can be better protected from fires following a major earthquake.

Input Ignored

In my nine-page public comment letter to the Planning staff in charge of collecting public requests for adding terms to the new MOU, I requested that the City negotiate with UCSF to compensate us for Fire Department fire protection services and contribute to the expansion of the AWSS network, which are a reasonable requests by the City. I also requested that UCSF require the City to prioritize protecting UCSF from major fires by completing the AWSS network and oceanside pump station by 2034 which is a reasonable request by UCSF. I provided detailed justifications for adding these issues as terms of the MOU and even cited enabling legislation that authorizes the City to impose a capital facilities fee on UCSF (Government Code Section 54999 et al).

Nothing happened. Planning acknowledged receipt of my comments but that was all. No mention of my requests at the community meeting, nor posting them on their website, much less including them in the 21-page MOU. Did Planning staff share my good ideas with Planning Director Hillis and Chancellor Hawgood? Was Mayor Breed sent a copy for her consideration? I don't think so. This is another example of the unsatisfactory public engagement referred to in Doug Comstock's Westside Observer article.  

Sole and Absolute Discretion

To finish this travesty, I will quote from the draft MOU agreement. Section V. General Provisions, Subsection C. Other General Provisions, 1. Miscellaneous (c), "All approvals and determinations of [the] City ... under this MOU may be made in the sole and absolute discretion of the Director of Planning or the head of the City department with jurisdiction over the matter. Any request for approvals or consents under this MOU by the staff (as opposed to boards or commissions) of either party will not be unreasonably withheld." So, no elected official, including the Mayor, will be involved in approvals and determinations under the MOU, and staff are free to make requests for approvals or consents under the MOU. What could possibly go wrong?

UCSF does need to worry about how the Parnassus Campus will have adequate fire protection if both the AWSS westside pipeline and hydrant expansion project along with the project to supply unlimited water are not essential commitments for the City to complete. There is no agreement in place that requires the City to make suppressing catastrophic fires at or near the UCSF campus after a major earthquake a top priority and that the infrastructure and water are in place to ensure maximum protection. UCSF - don't take fire protection for granted!

Nancy Wuerfel is a government fiscal analyst and served as a member of the Park, Recreation, Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) for 9 years.

January 2021

Supes: Westside Fire Readiness a “State of Urgency”

fire after SF earthquake 1906
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.
Nancy Wuerfel
Nancy Wuerfel.

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.

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.”

 High Pressure hydrants by district

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.

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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 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.

December 2019

A CALL TO ACTION IS REQUIRED

Nancy Wuerfel
Nancy Wuerfel.

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.

fire engulfs homes in Northern California

“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.

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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.

October 2019

CITY STILL NOT PREPARED FOR THE BIG EARTHQUAKE!

Sunset District
Nancy Wuerfel
Nancy Wuerfel.

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.

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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.

April 2019

Could the City’s Westside Burn After An Earthquake?

Painting of San Francisco fire
Nancy Wuerfel
Nancy Wuerfel.

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.

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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.

July 2018

Securing Enough Water After the Earthquake

Ocean Beach
A saltwater pump station to fight fires can be built underground adjacent to the ocean so that the landscape above is not distrubed.
Nancy Wuerfel
Nancy Wuerfel.

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.

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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.

April 2018

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