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Fire Response
Multiple fires are likely to occur following an earthquake, but there is not adequate water pressure to reach them on the westside.

Westside Fire Response Capacity

City Leaders Value Saving Money Over Saving Lives and Property

•••••••••• August 2, 2022 ••••••••••

If San Francisco doesn’t address the lack of access to firefighting water before the next great earthquake, much of the western and southern neighborhoods will likely succumb to firestorms of unimaginable proportions, as presented in the 2018-19 Civil Grand Jury (CGJ) Report “Act Now Before It Is Too Late: Aggressively Expand and Enhance Our High-Pressure Emergency Firefighting Water System.”

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a resolution in 2019 approving the report and calling upon the SF Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) to prepare a response to the recommendations. It took the SFPUC 2.5 years after the Board’s resolution affirming the CGJ report to finally develop an inadequate proposal for saving the City from catastrophic seismic fires, which was heard recently at the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee chaired by Supervisor Gordon Mar.

Our compliments to Thomas K. Pendergast for his continued diligence (June editions of Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon) in once again informing westside residents of the ongoing debate over the expansion of the high-pressure hydrant system to cover our 15 currently unprotected residential neighborhoods.   

His story referenced a recent Board of Supervisors committee meeting on April 28 where staff from the Water Enterprise Department of Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) presented a “planning study” instead of the citywide comprehensive plan required by the Board’s November 2019 unanimously approved resolution 484-19 “Declaring a State of Urgency – Expanding the City’s Emergency Firefighting Water System (EFWS).” 

quotes

Mayor Breed remains blissfully silent on the need to extend adequate fire protection to approximately half the City, even though she has knowledge of Fire Department needs having been a fire commissioner in 2010. She has reversed her support for recommendations made by the CGJ to protect all neighborhoods equally. She even took back $2 million from the Fire Department’s budget for hose tender trucks needed to access the new cisterns and never replaced it...”

Instead of planning to complete protection of the entire City by 2034, as the CGJ recommended in 2019 (then a 15-year timeframe), the SFPUC study says it might be able to get the hydrant expansion done by 2046. This date ignores the U.S. Geological Survey prediction of the next “Big One” to strike the Bay Area before 2043. 

 They tell us that one reason it will take so long is that the City has many other pressing issues that require funding, so the projects for post-earthquake firefighting are not a top priority. Apparently, it hasn’t occurred to City leaders that if the City is destroyed by fire, nothing else we accomplish in the interim will matter!

The homeless problem will then increase to include the displaced taxpayers, businesses and others who occupied the 138,000 wood frame buildings with almost 400,000 residents in the western and southern parts of the City, who were left to burn without the needed unlimited firefighting water for suppression.

It should also be noted that the SFPUC has had responsibility for the high-pressure hydrant system and its water supply since it was transferred from the Fire Department to them in 2010, the same year voters passed the first of three earthquake safety bonds. Resilience Officer Brian Strong stated that about $260 million of these Earthquake Safety and Emergency Response (ESER) General Obligation (G.O.) bonds was allotted to the EFWS, which paid for new cisterns and repairs to the existing EFWS, with the lion’s share of ESER bonds financing seismic improvements for eight city departments.

Besides being unable to produce a viable hydrant system expansion plan for more than a decade, and then producing only a “study” stating that they won’t be able to get the job done until 2046 – 36 years after they acquired the system – the SFPUC staff also wants to rely primarily on using drinking water from our municipal reservoirs to fight post-earthquake fires. Why would San Francisco civic leaders choose to use up the local supply of drinking water to fight the expected conflagrations when the City is surrounded by the largest body of water on earth, the Pacific Ocean, a free and unlimited water source? To save money!

Given that the municipal water supply only gets to the City after the Hetch Hetchy transmission mains cross three major Bay Area earthquake faults – the mains run directly above the San Andreas Fault for 25 miles to the treatment plant before entering the City – this plan to use drinking water for firefighting is a breathtakingly dangerous plan. We know that potable water will be in critically short supply for weeks or months following a major earthquake. Where is Plan B when water runs out for drinking, sanitation and hospitals?

Here is what 67 retired San Francisco firefighters, including 31 retired fire chiefs, had to say on the subject in an open letter addressed to Mayor London Breed, the Board of Supervisors and a number of other city officials (Richmond Review, August 2021):  “In the interest of public safety, [we must state that] it is completely irrational to assume that drinking water from municipal reservoirs will be adequate to reliably supply a high-pressure, high-volume hydrant system, like the Auxiliary Water Supply System, for fighting multiple simultaneous fires following a major Bay Area earthquake…. Based on our combined 2,000 years of professional firefighting experience, we must clearly state that the only practical solution for supplying a citywide high-pressure hydrant system … is to use the inexhaustible supply of saltwater that is readily available on three sides of the City.”

Please note how the City has demonstrated a lack of leadership to prepare for these predictable fires and failed to inform the public about earthquake fires dangers and reliance on drinking water: 

  • 1) Mayor Breed remains blissfully silent on the need to extend adequate fire protection to approximately half the City, even though she has knowledge of Fire Department needs having been a fire commissioner in 2010. She has reversed her support for recommendations made by the CGJ to protect all neighborhoods equally. She even took back $2 million from the Fire Department’s budget for hose tender trucks needed to access the new cisterns and never replaced it;
  • 2) The Public Utilities Commission has not had a hearing on the planning study presented to the Board or on relying on our local drinking water for fighting fires after an earthquake instead of using seawater; 
  • 3) The Fire Commission has not had a hearing on the planning study nor has it been adopted as fulfilling the needs of the Fire Department to suppress earthquake fires; 
  • 4) The Capital Planning Committee has not included “EFWS Expansion” as a unique, stand-alone category of projects to be in the 10-year Capital Expenditure Plan, separate from other projects funded by the ESER G.O. bonds, and with a placeholder estimate for funding future projects; and 
  • 5) City departments have failed to ask the San Franciscans who are the U.S. vice president, the speaker of the House, and the governor to help finance essential EFWS projects.

Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon Editor Michael Durand must be thanked again for publishing articles and commentaries to inform the neighborhoods of the failure of the mayor, the commissions, the City departments, and their leaders to budget and find other state and federal funds to protect our lives and property. The mayor must take the lead by prioritizing earthquake fire protection above the myriad of other politically popular projects. If we had a benefit vs. cost analysis performed to expand EFWS projects citywide, the results would be overwhelmingly in favor of spending money now to save the Bay Area’s crown jewel from being destroyed again by earthquake fires. 

 

Frank T. Blackburn is a retired SF Fire Department Division Chief, and Nancy Wuerfel is a government fiscal analyst.

August 2022

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This image shows San Francisco in flames after a 7.8-earthquake struck in the early morning hours of April 18, 1906.
The S. F. Public Utilities Commission, A Civic Disaster - From Corruption to Conflagration

More than 15 San Francisco neighborhoods could burn to the ground due to a lack of water at the SF Fire Department’s disposal after a major earthquake.

Thomas Doudiet
Thomas W. Doudiet

In our “outlying” neighborhoods, if the “Big One” were to strike the Bay Area today, the fifteen San Francisco neighborhoods that lack the high-pressure hydrants, and their 138,000 buildings, occupied by almost 400,000 people, would be virtually defenseless against post-earthquake fires.  We don’t know when the “Big One” will strike, but we do know that in those fifteen neighborhoods there would be no water for the SFFD to use to fight the multiple simultaneous fires that experts tell us are certain to merge into conflagrations.

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REPRINTED from the RICHMOND REVIEW, November 2021, Sponsored Commentary

How They’re “MOC-ing” the Westside

The continuing saga:

Geologists long ago confirmed that San Francisco is situated directly above a seismic time bomb at the junction of the North American and Pacific tectonic plates, which gives rise to eight major Bay Area earthquake faults.  The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) has demonstrated a shocking degree of ineptitude in its approach to the vital expansion of the high-pressure fire hydrant system since being made responsible for this critically important 115 year old City infrastructure in 2010.

The list of proposals for expansion of the high-pressure hydrant system that have been formulated by the SFPUC over the last four years clearly indicate:   
(1) A dangerous lack of understanding of geological facts;
(2) No comprehension of the danger that a huge number of simultaneous fires pose in a city full of wood-frame buildings;
(3) No sense of urgency about providing adequate fire protection to fifteen S. F. neighborhoods that lack high-pressure hydrants;
(4) No awareness of the tremendous volume of water that is required to defeat the radiated heat (often exceeding 2,500 degrees at ground level) produced during an urban conflagration;
(5) No appreciation of the speed with which an urban conflagration will spread from block to block

Since the S.F. Fire Department’s high-pressure hydrant system was transferred to the S.F. Public Utilities Commission’s (SFPUC) Water Department in 2010, there have been three Earthquake Safety and Emergency Response (ESER) capital bonds passed by the City’s voters, in 2010, 2014 and 2020, with a total of $312.5 million earmarked for the improvement and expansion of the City’s high-pressure hydrants of the Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS).  Eleven years after the passage of the first bond, the SFPUC still has not come forward with a comprehensive plan to protect thirteen of the fifteen unprotected neighborhoods. 

In the two neighborhoods for which the SFPUC has formulated plans, the Sunset and the Richmond, what they have proposed will unfortunately leave large areas of the Richmond with insufficient firefighting water volume and pressure.  Moreover, there are NO high-pressure hydrants planned for the Sea Cliff neighborhood.

Broken Water Main Breaks 2009-2016

Water main breaks map
This map indicates the number of municipal water main breaks in the City over a seven year period, in the absence of any major earthquakes. This underscores the vulnerability of the potable water system to catastrophic failure following a major earthquake and explains why the low-pressure hydrant system, whis is supplied solely by these municipal water mains, cannot be relied upon for fire fighting after such an event occurs.

By late 2018, the snail-like pace of the SFPUC to implement a rational citywide expansion plan prompted concerned citizens to file a complaint with the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury, which resulted in an exhaustive report (July 2019) that concluded:  (1) in order to avoid the loss of vast areas of the City to post-earthquake fires the high-pressure hydrant system MUST be expanded to all currently unprotected San Francisco neighborhoods; and (2) time is of the essence. 

That report, “Act Now Before It Is Too Late:  Aggressively Expand and Enhance Our High Pressure Emergency Firefighting Water System,” can be accessed at the Civil Grand Jury’s website under Reports 2018-2019.

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Their plan, to use the earthquake bond money to slowly upgrade some of their antiquated and fragile drinking water mains, is the underlying reason that the citywide expansion of the high-pressure hydrants cannot be completed before mid-century.

In their answer to the Grand Jury’s findings, responding City agencies (the Mayor, the SFPUC, DPW and the SFFD) collaboratively wrote the following: 

“As the City considers what is essential to protect San Francisco it is important to acknowledge our multiple, complex resilience challenges. These challenges are documented in the Resilient SF strategy (2016) and underlie the strategic efforts of our capital investments as represented in the 10-Year Capital Plan (last updated in 2019). These challenges are: Earthquakes, Sea Level Rise/Climate Change, Aging Infrastructure, Unaffordability, and Social Inequity. All of these challenges represent meaningful threats to San Franciscans, their property, and their ability to make a life in the city. In making decisions about priority investments, San Francisco must keep an eye on all of these challenges, identify the areas of greatest need across them, and make progress on all fronts simultaneously.” [Emphasis added].

In other words, all of these issues are of importance to the quality of life in San Francisco and all must be prioritized when we consider how to spend our public funds. Therefore any expansion of the high-pressure hydrant system into the currently unprotected neighborhoods has to fall in line and wait for occasional funding through the capital bond process. This means that any additional hydrant system expansion that could take place using capital bond funds will be voted on in 2027, 2033, and incrementally out to 2049. This does not address the Grand Jury’s call for a complete build-out into all currently vulnerable neighborhoods by 2034. 

It has apparently never occurred to the bureaucrats who staff these agencies that if the City burns down after the next big earthquake, because our hydrant system is either incomplete or inadequate, anything else we might have accomplished in the meantime will be of no value whatsoever.

Instead of responding constructively to the Grand Jury’s clear call of urgency to complete a citywide high-pressure hydrant expansion, the SFPUC has chosen a series of piecemeal, neighborhood-by neighborhood mini-expansions that they state will never be integrated into the existing high-pressure hydrant system that protects the northeastern part of the City. Some neighborhoods will have no high-pressure hydrant protection at all.

Hydrants

Contrary to the intent of the voters, which was to build dedicated high-pressure, high-volume mains specifically for firefighting, under their plan the SFPUC will instead build reinforced drinking water mains.  Additionally they will also make every effort to avoid using the unlimited supply of seawater that borders the City on three sides, which the existing system in the eastern neighborhoods has been able to access since 1913.

Their plan, to use the earthquake bond money to slowly upgrade some of their antiquated and fragile drinking water mains, is the underlying reason that the citywide expansion of the high-pressure hydrants cannot be completed before mid-century.  The SFPUC needs to slowly divert the earthquake bond funds from their originally announced purpose to fit their own agenda.  Depending entirely on periodic capital bond funding, and relegating the citywide build-out to numerous patchwork projects with occasional funding, instead of pursuing one large dedicated funding source for a comprehensive expansion, will surreptitiously facilitate their agenda.  If the “Big One” hits before the piecemeal, drinking water plan is complete sometime after 2050, well … tough luck for those residents living in the western and southern neighborhoods.

“But a complete expansion of the high-pressure hydrant system is going to be expensive and we have so many other important ways to spend our capital bond money ….”

The contention that the expansion of the high-pressure hydrant system must be financed by exclusively capital bonds, on the premise that this is the only way the City can pay for such an expensive endeavor, is absurd. In fact, if one percent of the current city budget were to be allocated to the hydrant expansion project every year for the next ten years, there would be $1.3 billion available to extend adequate post-earthquake fire protection to the entire city, which should be more than enough money. Can we afford NOT to set aside 1% of the annual City budget for a decade to keep San Francisco from burning down? What will happen to the annual budget, and the tax base, if the City is destroyed by post-earthquake fires?

Moreover, FEMA has money available for just such disaster prevention projects.  However, as far as can be determined, the City has made no application to FEMA for grants to expand our high-pressure hydrant system, despite the fact that the Civil Grand Jury has twice called for the expansion, in 2003 and 2019. 

Also in another August, 21 edition of the Westside Observer, another retired Assistant Fire Chief and I explained how the SFPUC’s current hydrant expansion plan would leave the northern blocks of the Richmond and all of the Sea Cliff neighborhood with insufficient firefighting water after an earthquake. 

In the August 2021 Westside Observer, 67 retired firefighters, including 31 retired SFFD Chiefs, further explained the absolute necessity of building a saltwater pump station at the northern end of Ocean Beach to adequately supply water to an expanded high-pressure hydrant system in our neighborhoods. Their conclusion: without this seawater pump station to provide unlimited amounts of water to the northwestern quadrant of the City, major portions of the Richmond and Sea Cliff will be destroyed by post-earthquake fires after the next major Bay Area earthquake.

From about 2013 to the present, engineers at the Water Department have made it plain to anyone interested in following the high-pressure hydrant expansion story that two considerations were guiding their agenda: (1) they didn’t want to expand the existing high-pressure hydrant system (AWSS) using the City’s readily available inexhaustible supply of saltwater; and (2) they intend to use the voter approved earthquake bond money to build reinforced drinking water mains instead. This, no doubt, reflects the deferred maintenance on the 1,200 miles of fragile drinking water mains for which they’re responsible.

Meanwhile the SFPUC has been telling the public and the Board of Supervisors that using the drinking water in our City reservoirs to put out post-earthquake fires will be adequate.

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...of the 327 million gallons in the three terminal reservoirs (which is 79% of the water in all of San Francisco’s municipal reservoirs) only 1/3 actually belongs to San Francisco...due to the mandate of the State Water Code, after a major earthquake the City could have as little as 86 million gallons (less than a one day supply) remaining in its reservoirs, due to the requirement of back-flowing jointly-owned water down to the Peninsula cities. ”

Some facts that the SFPUC is reluctant to disclose:

...

The California State Water Code Section 73503 specifies that the water in San Francisco’s three terminal reservoirs (Sunset, Merced Manor and University Mound) is jointly owned by the City and 27 “wholesale water customers” (cities on the Peninsula) and that, when a regional disaster (such as an earthquake) occurs, the City is legally obligated to share this water “equitably” with the Peninsula cities.

As stated in the August 12, 2003 minutes of the SFPUC by the General Manager of the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA), of the 327 million gallons in the three terminal reservoirs (which is 79% of the water in all of San Francisco’s municipal reservoirs) only 1/3 actually belongs to San Francisco.

Statements from these same minutes, by both SFPUC staff and Commissioners, confirm that, due to the mandate of the State Water Code, after a major earthquake the City could have as little as 86 million gallons (less than a one day supply) remaining in its reservoirs, due to the requirement of back-flowing jointly-owned water down to the Peninsula cities.  An earlier Civil Grand Jury report (2003) cited these same alarming limitations and called for a citywide expansion of the saltwater high-pressure hydrant system. 

These facts, although known, acknowledged, and recorded in the minutes of the SFPUC fifteen years ago, have never been disclosed in any public discussion of their proposals to use our drinking water as a major source of supply for an expansion of the high-pressure hydrant system into the currently unprotected neighborhoods. 

Perhaps, finally realizing that some members of the public (not to mention retired SFFD firefighters) have caught on to the “drinking water for post-earthquake firefighting” deception, the SFPUC has now decided to add badly contaminated Lake Merced water to supply their proposed high-pressure hydrant expansion in the western neighborhoods. Missing from their plan, however, is any rational explanation as to how they will decontaminate the pipes that would normally carry drinking water to the neighborhoods during the days immediately after the firestorms have been defeated. A decontamination process will be time consuming, if it can be accomplished at all in the immediate aftermath of a major earthquake.

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In the fifteen neighborhoods that currently have no high-pressure hydrant there are approximately 138,000 buildings, the majority of which are of wood-frame construction. In terms of what firefighters call “fuel load”, these neighborhoods are like very dry, densely packed forests, in which, as every Californian knows by now, it is extremely difficult to contain a fire once it starts.”

The SFPUC also plans the send Daly City street storm water runoff into Lake Merced to raise the lake level. To use the same pipes for the severely polluted Lake Merced water for firefighting that the public will soon thereafter have to depend on for water for drinking and sanitation needs, is a recipe for a public health emergency on a vast scale.  This is not to say, however, that both Lake Merced water and salt water pumped from the Pacific Ocean can’t be used in the same high-pressure hydrant mains. They certainly can, as long as these mains are entirely separate from any pipes that carry drinking water.

Richmond Fire

How much water will be needed to fight post-earthquake fires?

Dr. Charles Scawthorn, professor of engineering, at Kyoto University and U.C. Berkeley, and the SFPUC’s leading engineering consultant in maters related to water for post-earthquake firefighting, has predicted that there will be as many as 160 simultaneous fires, distributed more or less randomly citywide following a magnitude 7.9 earthquake, the earthquake on which the SFPUC’s hydrant expansion plans are predicated. A magnitude 7.9 earthquake, such as struck San Francisco in 1906, would have about 30 times more destructive power than the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

In the fifteen neighborhoods that currently have no high-pressure hydrant there are approximately 138,000 buildings, the majority of which are of wood-frame construction. In terms of what firefighters call “fuel load”, these neighborhoods are like very dry, densely packed forests, in which, as every Californian knows by now, it is extremely difficult to contain a fire once it starts. Based on Dr. Scawthorn’s prediction, it's not unreasonable to assume there will be between 40 and 60 simultaneous fires that will spread rapidly in these fifteen unprotected western and southern neighborhoods.

Let us assume that the SFPUC were to finally adopt a responsible course of action and complete a comprehensive expansion of high-pressure mains and hydrants into these highly vulnerable neighborhoods.

Question:  How many gallons of water will be needed to fight between 40 and 60 simultaneous fires in these neighborhoods of wood-frame buildings?

Answer:  Although Professor Scawthorn estimates that, for the maximum number of fires anticipated, up to 230,000 gallons per minute will be needed, the total number of gallons that will be needed to fully contain the fires can’t be determined.

Question:  Why can’t the total number of gallons needed to contain the fires be determined?

Answer:  A multitude of variables are in play when this many fires are burning simultaneously within a city:

  • The perhaps 40 to 60 fires estimated for the currently unprotected neighborhoods is only the initial emergency.  Due to the limited number of firefighting units available citywide (43 engines and 19 trucks, only half of which might be available in the western and southern neighborhoods), many of these initial, individual fires will not be fought immediately, but will develop into larger fires, encompassing a number of buildings or entire blocks, before the SFFD can get to the fire scene.
  • The wind conditions at the time of the earthquake will be an important factor in the spread of fires.
  • The larger each fire becomes before the SFFD can get to the scene and begin applying water, the more radiant heat will develop, which can lead to buildings on adjacent blocks spontaneously igniting, even in the absence of wind or flying embers.
  • Therefore, it must be anticipated that not just a number of individual fires will have to be fought simultaneously, but that a number of conflagrations (firestorms) will have to be fought simultaneously before the post-earthquake fires are brought under control. 
  • Thus, it is not possible to verify that a certain number of gallons will be needed for post-earthquake firefighting, but it is possible to say that the inexhaustible (and immediately available) amount of seawater that surrounds San Francisco WILL be adequate, whereas the use of our relatively miniscule supply of drinking water to fight post-earthquake fires would be superfluous by comparison to the volume of the Pacific Ocean.

Weighing in on this point, Dr. Scawthorn stated in his official review of the SFPUC’s plan to use both Lake Merced water and drinking water to fight fires in the western neighborhoods:

“The Pacific Ocean: It was ironic that San Francisco burnt for three days [in 1906] due to lack of firefighting water, when it is surrounded on three sides by the largest body of water on earth.  Construction of a West Side Salt Water Pump Station (WSSWPS) would be very beneficial and eliminate the need for using the potable water in Sunset Reservoir, a precious resource particularly following a major earthquake.” - (January 2018) Dr. Charles Scawthorn

Other eminently qualified experts have also sounded the alarm against the use of our drinking water for firefighting in the days immediately following a major earthquake:

“Based on our combined 2,000 years of professional firefighting experience, we must clearly state that the only practical solution for supplying a citywide high-pressure hydrant system, when a multitude of post earthquake fires must be fought, is to use the inexhaustible supply of saltwater that is readily available on three sides of the City.”  – (August 2021) 67 retired SFFD firefighters, including 31 retired fire chiefs.

“The more hydrants that are opened between the currently planned pump stations and the northern end of the Richmond, the lower the pressure and volume of available water will be to fight fires along Geary Boulevard and California Street. The Sea Cliff neighborhood is the most affected since the SFPUC’s plan would not install even a single high-pressure hydrant anywhere north of California Street, nor would it access the inexhaustible supply of water available at Ocean Beach.
There is an obvious remedy for these issues. The existing high-pressure hydrant system in the eastern part of the City is capable of supplying unlimited amounts of saltwater from the bay for firefighting, as it has done reliably since the system was first put into service in 1913. Two northern and eastern waterfront pump stations and three fireboats can provide an enormous amount (88,000 gallons per minute) of saltwater to fight fires, which is exactly what is going to be needed for the western side of the City when the post-earthquake conflagrations start. It is absolutely critical to the survival of the Richmond and Sea Cliff districts that a high-pressure saltwater pump station be built at the north end of Ocean Beach and be incorporated into the high-pressure hydrant and pipeline expansion plan ASAP.”- (June 2021) Assistant Chief Frank Blackburn, SFFD, retired, whose foresight and planning and was widely credited with having saved the Marina District from destruction by fire following the October 1989 earthquake.
“The AWSS [high-pressure hydrant system] is a proven dedicated firefighting system, which uses the unlimited supply of salt water that exists on three sides of the City. Because it does so at high pressure, it enables a far more efficient use of the available fire engines during a post-earthquake firefighting situation, when the domestic water mains will not be a dependable source of firefighting water. The failure to extend this dependable system into the presently unserved neighborhoods will make post-earthquake firefighting very nearly impossible in those areas of the City.”
“Further, the proposed use of domestic water supplies from reservoirs, without which the citizens of the City cannot survive post-earthquake, is absurd when an unlimited supply of ocean water is so readily available.  That the SFFD Administration has agreed to this bizarre fantasy is so irresponsible as to be almost beyond belief to professional firefighters. If the present PUC plan for post-earthquake water supplies for the SFFD goes forward, it is very likely that large sections of the City will be consumed by fire following the next great Bay Area earthquake.” – (April 6, 2016 letter to Supervisor Aaron Peskin) Thomas P. O’Connor, Jr., SFFD Battalion Chief, then President of San Francisco Firefighters Local 798, International Association of Fire Fighters.
These unequivocal statements by highly qualified professionals, including the SFPUC’s own engineering expert consultant, leave no doubt that that the current plan to extend the high-pressure hydrant system without using the inexhaustible supply of seawater that is virtually at the doorstep of the currently unprotected neighborhoods is:  (1) not what the voters were told they would get when they approved the three earthquake safety bonds; and (2) is not going to save the western and southern residential neighborhoods from destruction by post-earthquake fires.

How has the SFPUC been able to pull this “sleight of hand” on the voters: attempting to avoid using the unlimited supply of seawater in the expanded high-pressure hydrant system, and insisting on the use of our limited supply of drinking water instead?

Who decides how the Earthquake Safety bond money is spent?

It is helpful to know who decides how the Earthquake Safety bond money is spent. In April of 2018, this question was asked of John Scarpulla, who is the SFPUC’s spokesman for “Policy and Government Affairs”. Here is his answer from an email to a resident of the Sunset:

 “All decisions made regarding how to spend money on AWSS [high-pressure hydrant] projects are made by the Management Oversight Committee (MOC), which consists of: 

  • Harlan Kelly [SFPUC General Manager]
  • Mohammed Nuru [Director of S. F.  Public Works Dept.]
  • Chief Hayes-White; [SFFD Chief]
  • Steve Ritchie [SFPUC Water Dept. Asst. General Manager]

The Management Oversight Committee is an ad hoc committee, called on an as-needed basis by one of the members. There is no set location. Regular agendas and minutes are not a part of the process of this ad hoc committee. It will be disbanded once it is agreed upon by all members that is has completed the work it set out to do. Additionally, they are not bound by the rules of other committees and commissions, including public noticing.” [Emphasis added].

How was this decision-making process established? When the first earthquake bond was passed in 2010, the person in charge of the Capital Planning Committee (the City Administrator) apparently determined that the above named people, without having any official approval from the Board of Supervisors, with no published agendas, no public meetings, no public records being kept, and with no public input whatsoever, would be allowed to determine how hundreds of millions of dollars of funds authorized by the voters for the expansion of the high-pressure hydrant system were to be spent. Note that the Capital Planning Committee (on which both Harlan Kelly and Mohammed Nuru sat) reviews and submits the City’s Capital Plan, the Capital Budget, and issuances of long-term debt for approval to the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors, based on the MOC recommendations.

The Westside has been ”MOC-ed”

Let’s review how each of the members of the MOC might be persuaded to subvert the public good in deciding what form the expansion of the high-pressure hydrant system would take:
     Harlan Kelly – General Manager of the SFPUC (and therefore the Water
Department) and long-time friend of the Mayor;
     Mohammed Nuru – Director of the Department of Public Works, and a very close long-time friend of the Mayor and of Harlan and Naomi Kelly;
     Joanne Hayes-White – Chief of the SFFD, who served at the pleasure of the Mayor, and who didn’t yet qualify for a full pension when the MOC was deciding to use drinking water instead of seawater in the expanded high-pressure hydrant system;
     Steve Ritchie – Assistant General Manager of the Water Department, whose job (and pension) is dependent on pleasing his SFPUC superiors.

Can you say “conflict of interest”?

And who was the Chair of the Capital Planning Committee at the time? It was none other than City Administrator Naomi Kelly, wife of General Manager Harlan Kelly of the SFPUC.

Needless to say, there are very few San Francisco residents at the present time who are unaware of the indictments brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for bribery and related felonies that have resulted in the resignations of Mohammed Nuru and both Harlan and Naomi Kelly, all of whom are long-time friends of Mayor Breed and former Mayor Willie Brown. It is instructive to note that an interview with former Mayor Brown, conducted by Examiner reporter and columnist Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez was published on December 7, 2020, during which the following was recorded: 

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez:  “You’ve known these people – Nuru, Harlan, and Naomi, in particular – for years.  Are these allegations a surprise to you?  Are the reactions from the public a surprise to you?”

Willie Brown:  “I don’t understand what the object (of people’s ire) happens to be, frankly, because the kind of thing they’re talking about, and the kind of thing they’re doing, doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of implications for the operation of city government. It’s not like someone built a bridge and used inferior products to build the bridge, and therefore risked the lives of lots of people. Or built a rail line and built equipment that risked the lives of people. …”  [Emphasis added].

To these examples of really critical, life-safety sensitive projects, one must add the infrastructure (the high-pressure hydrant system) intended to keep the City from burning down following a major earthquake.

In light of what’s at stake in the expansion of the high-pressure hydrant system into the currently unprotected neighborhoods – the preservation of lives and property (which is the primary mission of the SFFD, incidentally) – could former Mayor Brown’s statement be more ironic?

Passing off as harmless the hubris of public officials taking bribes in the form of trips to China, as the Kellys allegedly did, or shaking down City contractors for contributions to non-profit entities in return for the granting of contracts, as Nuru may have, or allowing a subordinate (Nuru) to pay for repairs to a personal vehicle, as Mayor Breed did, is indicative of the arrogance that permeates San Francisco city government. 

Moreover, what does it say about the willingness of those in positions of public trust to assume that they are so superior to the members of the general public in terms of intellect, talent or expertise that they are therefore free to bend the rule of law, ignore the will of the public (who pass capital bonds and pay the taxes to support the bonds), and put the long-term public safety at risk, to suit their own agenda? 

The assumption in both cases – accepting bribes, on the one hand, and attempting to delude the public as to the efficacy of using drinking water to fight post-earthquake fires, on the other – is that either nobody will notice, or nobody will care enough to call them to account for their violation of the public trust.  Clearly, this assumption is wrong on both counts.

Thus, the “Management Oversight Committee”, a small, select group of appointed bureaucrats, several of whom are now in public disgrace for having committed lesser transgressions, has attempted to deceive the public in a manner that will, according to firefighting experts, put the much of the Sunset and the Richmond, and all of Sea Cliff, as well as thirteen other western and southern San Francisco neighborhoods, in permanent and mortal danger of destruction by post-earthquake fires. 

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At present, the responsibility for lack of water to fight post-earthquake fires lies with the SFPUC; if residents fail to take action now against the SFPUC’s disastrous plan to use drinking water instead of seawater to fight post-earthquake fires, we will have taken the responsibility for the eventual destruction of our neighborhoods upon ourselves. We must make our voices heard, and we must do so immediately.”

By insisting that the use of our insufficient supply of drinking water will be adequate to fight post-earthquake firestorms in these neighborhoods, or that contaminated Lake Merced water, having been inserted into drinking water mains, will not harm those residents who will be dependent on having uncontaminated water in the aftermath of the earthquake, the self-anointed members of the “Management Oversight Committee” have clearly demonstrated their contempt for the residents of the unprotected neighborhoods. This is underscored by the fact that they have apparently never bothered to consider how difficult it might be to decontaminate fouled drinking water mains in the immediate aftermath of a major earthquake.

Willie Brown is right about one thing. The corruption that led Mohammed Nuru, and Harlan and Naomi Kelly to resign, although criminal, is small-time compared to the massive deception they intend to put over on the public in regard to the high-pressure hydrant expansion. Unfortunately, even though they are gone from public life, their corruption lives on in the inadequate hydrant expansion plan the SFPUC still intends to force on the public.

The SFPUC presented its next report on the high-pressure hydrant system expansion plan to the Board of Supervisors’ Government Audit and Oversight Committee on November 18, 2021. District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan (Richmond District) sits on this three-member committee.

What must Westside residents do immediately to defeat the SFPUC’s disastrous post-earthquake “drinking water for firefighting” deception?
Here is the message that we must personally deliver to the Mayor and to our representatives on the Board of Supervisors:

  • The S. F. Public Utilities Commission must be stopped from using drinking water in the expanded high-pressure hydrant system in our neighborhoods;
  • The City’s supply of drinking water will NOT be adequate to fight post-earthquake fires.  The expanded high-pressure hydrant system in the western and southern neighborhoods MUST have an inexhaustible source of water - the Pacific Ocean - just as the existing hydrant system on the eastern side of the City has;
  • A high-pressure seawater pump station MUST be built at the north end of Ocean Beach in order to connect to and provide an adequate water supply for high-pressure hydrants in the northern Richmond and Sea Cliff, and the expansion plan MUST include hydrants in Sea Cliff, which is NOT part of the preset plan;
  • When the next big earthquake strikes the Bay Area, our drinking water must not be used to fight fires, but instead must be kept safely in the municipal reservoirs for drinking and sanitation needs after the shaking stops and the fires are put out.

At present, the responsibility for lack of water to fight post-earthquake fires lies with the SFPUC; if residents fail to take action now against the SFPUC’s disastrous plan to use drinking water instead of seawater to fight post-earthquake fires, we will have taken the responsibility for the eventual destruction of our neighborhoods upon ourselves. We must make our voices heard, and we must do so immediately.

San Francisco on fire
San Francisco in flames after the 1906 earthquake. Much of the City was destroyed because of inadequate firefighting water supplies. Will we allow that to happen again as the SFPUC ignores the fact that an abundant source of water for firefighting – the largest body of water on earth – surrounds the City? Courtesy photo of a painting by W. A. Coulter.

(1)  No matter what neighborhood you live in, call and email the Mayor.
(415) 554-6141 (voice); (415) 554-6160 (fax);
mayorlondonbreed@sfgov.org
(2)  If you live in the Richmond, call and email Supervisor Connie Chan.
(415) 554-7410 (voice); (415) 554-5163 (fax);
Chanstaff@sfgov.org
(3)  If you live Sea Cliff, call and email Supervisor Catherine Stefani.
(415) 554-7752 (voice); (415) 554-7843 (fax);
Catherine.Stefani@sfgov.org.
(4)  If you live in the Sunset, call and email Supervisor Gordon Mar.
(415) 554-7460 (voice); (415) 554-7432 (fax);
Gordon.Mar@sfgov.org
  (5)  If you live in the West Portal area, call and email Supervisor Myrna Melgar.
(415) 554-6516 (voice);
melgarstaff@sfgov.org

 

This article was reprinted from the Richmond Review,  November 2021,  at the behest of Nancy Wuerfel, a government fiscal analyst and served as a member of the Park, Recreation, Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) for 9 years.

This month’s commentary is the fifteenth article to appear in the Richmond Review (as well as many that have appeared in the Westside Observer below) on the subject of the S.F. Public Utilities Commission’s faltering attempts to plan a comprehensive expansion of the City’s high-pressure hydrant system into the unprotected western and southern neighborhoods.

All previous articles can be read on the Richmond Review website.

November 23, 2021

Welder with Pipe

How the SFPUC Flooded Stern Grove—the Untold Story

Nancy Wuerfel
Nancy Wuerfel

Well, THAT was not supposed to happen! The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission should be really embarrassed to allow a common place air release valve, essential for controlling pressures in every pipeline and pump station, to fail thereby causing the pipeline to rupture. Proper valve maintenance and with recommended periodic valve replacement could have avoided this event, especially since this new pipeline was just completed in 2012.

Then to exacerbate this unfortunate situation, the SFPUC decided to hastily dump 700,000 gallons of drinking water out of the pipeline so they could begin repairs of the faulty valve but with no regard for the repercussions on Stern Grove and the neighborhoods.

Stern Grove Flood
Stern Grove not only lost an amazing concert, but
also it's only fundraiser for the year, on top of
added expenses to make the Grove safe.

It must be noted that there is nothing ordinary about this particular pipeline, and it is not like the usual old pipelines that have leaks. This is the big San Andreas Pipeline No. 3 that brings treated Hetch Hetchy water from the peninsula into Merced Manor Reservoir to go on to fill Sunset Reservoir. It is the seismically reinforced, 36 inches wide, 4.4 miles long, replacement pipeline paid for by the $4.8 billion Water System Improvement Program (WSIP) bond, and somehow it developed a faulty air valve.

It must also be noted that there is nothing ordinary about the reservoir that receives the water. The Merced Manor Reservoir is one of the three "terminal reservoirs" inside the city that receives and stores treated water from Hetch Hetchy. These terminal reservoirs are also co-owned with the peninsula customers. By law in an emergency such as an earthquake, we must share this water equitably with the peninsula cities. This means that 79% of all locally available water can be apportioned without knowing how much the city will get. The city does have free access to the 21% balance of water in the remaining reservoirs.

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How the SFPUC Keeps Us in the Dark

However, there are two actions by the SFPUC that are ordinary and customary in the way they mishandle the public:

 

First, the SFPUC does not want to be transparent about its service problems. It never mentioned that the pipeline shutdown was the big San Andreas Pipeline No 3 that feeds into Merced Manor Reservoir and the Central Pump Station. The public was only told through news media that the "problematic pipeline was in the area of Sloat Boulevard and 22nd Avenue." Any future serious event such as this, especially requiring a massive 700,000-gallon release of water, must be acknowledged with details by a press release from the SFPUC.

... and it is not like the usual old pipelines that have leaks... It is the seismically reinforced, 36 inch wide, 4.4 miles long, replacement pipeline paid for by the $4.8 billion Water System Improvement Program (WSIP) bond, and somehow it developed a faulty air valve.”

Second, a Tweet from a nameless SFPUC person stating "We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused" is insulting in the Tweet delivery and the actual message. Trashing Stern Grove by flooding it with uncontrolled volumes of water destroying trees, paths, the performance venue, sending mud into Pine Lake, etc. is not just an "inconvenience." SFPUC caused serious harm to our 64-acre park and canceled the final performance of the summer festival. Such a major disruption to the use of public space deserves a sincere apology from the General Manager and a hearing at the Public Utilities Commission, and some compensation for the damage done.

Another SFPUC Do-over

By the way, some people may recall that the Merced Manor Reservoir was upgraded in 2004 to seismically strengthen and repair the roof structure and foundations. However, after the completion of the upgrade, spalling of concrete (breaking off in fragments) at various locations on the roof structure was observed over the years due to the changes in expansion and contraction that affected the temperature gradient experienced in the roof structure. So, the reservoir must, once again, undergo modification of the roof structure and repair of the spalled concrete because the first design of the seismic retrofit was done "without the benefit of the lessons learned from later roof retrofits and construction at Sunset North Basin and University Mound North Basin."  Perhaps with proper engineering, this second repair will be final. The WSIP bond will again finance the repair scheduled to begin in 2022 and be completed by 2031.

Let us ask the Public Utilities Commission and the SFPUC senior staff 1) to examine the events outlined in this article as just a small sample of the unspoken problems the Water Enterprise is facing but is not telling the public about, and 2) to provide the leadership necessary to greatly improve the transparency and accountability of departmental actions to the public.

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

 

August 31, 2021

Fireman rescues child

SFPUC Bureaucrats: Fight Westside Fires with City’s Supply of Drinking Water

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE MAYOR AND BOARD OF SUPERVISORS from 67 retired San Francisco Fire Department Chief Officers, Captains, Lieutenants and Firefighters:

In July 2019 the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury issued a report, “Act Now Before It Is Too Late: Aggressively Expand and Enhance Our High-Pressure Emergency Firefighting Water Supply System.

The two most important conclusions of that report were that in order to avoid the destruction of major areas of the city by firestorms following the next great Bay Area earthquake:

(1) the high-pressure hydrant system, first put into service in 1913, must expanded to cover all San Francisco neighborhoods; and

(2) time is of the essence.

The current guardian of the high-pressure hydrant system, the SF Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), has published plans to build a system in the outer Richmond and outer Sunset Districts that would use drinking water from the north basin of Sunset Reservoir as a primary source of water for this system, which would not be connected to the existing high-pressure hydrant system. Further, it has been indicated that subsequent expansions into other currently unprotected neighborhoods, which might take place in the future, would also use drinking water from municipal reservoirs. This plan is in stark contrast to the long established use of the City’s inexhaustible supply of seawater as the primary water source in the existing high-pressure hydrant system.

The SFPUC’s own expert engineering consultant, Dr. Charles Scawthorn, the world’s leading scholar of the modeling of the spread of fire following earthquakes in modern urban settings, has predicted that between 70 and 120 fires will occur citywide following a M7.9 earthquake, the same magnitude that struck in 1906, causing firestorms that destroyed the City.

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...particularly in our numerous wood-frame residential neighborhoods...the volume of water that will eventually be required in order to bring these firestorms under control will be incalculably large, and only an inexhaustible water source, such as the Pacific Ocean, will suffice.”

Inasmuch as the SFFD has only 43 staffed fire engines stationed within the city limits, it is obvious that some of the predicted fires will burn unchecked for an indeterminate period of time, and therefore form into conflagrations, particularly in our numerous wood-frame residential neighborhoods, before the SFFD can respond. The result will be that the volume of water that will eventually be required in order to bring these firestorms under control will be incalculably large, and only an inexhaustible water source, such as the Pacific Ocean, will suffice.

In recognition of these facts, 67 retired San Francisco Fire Department Chief Officers, Captains, Lieutenants and Firefighters, whose combined experience represents more than 2.000 years of SFFD service, have jointly issued a public statement (below) relative to the current plans of the SFPUC to use drinking water in an expanded high-pressure hydrant system.

But How Many SFPUC Bureaucrats Have Ever Fought a Fire?
Here is What Common Sense and Firefighting Experts Tell Us:

"As retired San Francisco Fire Department Chief Officers, Captains, Lieutenants, and Firefighters, we believe that it is our responsibility to emphatically state the following in the interest of public safety:

it is completely irrational to assume that drinking water from municipal reservoirs will be adequate to reliably supply a high-pressure, high-volume citywide hydrant system, like the Auxiliary Water Supply System, for fighting multiple simultaneous fires following a major Bay Area earthquake.

The Hetch-Hetchy drinking water system traverses 167 miles from the Sierras, crosses three major Bay Area earthquake faults, and then closely parallels the San Andreas Fault for 25 miles along the Peninsula, before reaching the City’s three terminal reservoirs. To assume that it will remain completely intact following a M7.9 earthquake of unknowable epicenter or duration is a matter of mere conjecture.

Water System Map

The reliability of the water supplied to the SFFD to fight post-earthquake fires cannot be left to chance. Given the realities of fighting urban conflagrations, the implementation of the SFPUC’s misguided “PEFWS” plan (the drinking water Potable Emergency Firefighting Water System) may very well lead to the destruction by fire of entire San Francisco neighborhoods.

Based on our combined 2,000 years of professional firefighting experience, we must clearly state that the only practical solution for supplying a citywide high-pressure hydrant system, when a multitude of post earthquake fires must be fought, is to use the inexhaustible supply of saltwater that is readily available on three sides of the City. This will require the construction of new high-pressure saltwater pump stations at the northern end of Ocean Beach and at Hunters Point. Following a major earthquake it will be essential to have independent and unlimited water sources for firefighting available in all four quadrants of the City. Therefore, an additional high-pressure pump station at Lake Merced, which contains over one billion gallons of non-potable water, will complete the water supply requirements for an interconnected citywide expansion of the existing high-pressure hydrant system into all San Francisco neighborhoods.

These new pump stations are the only means by which an inexhaustible water supply can be provided to the expanded hydrant system called for by the Civil Grand Jury’s 2019 report. Moreover, this will leave the municipal water supply in the City's reservoirs, where it must be maintained, available for the critically important drinking and sanitation needs of the City’s residents following a major earthquake.”

Mario Trevino, Chief of Department, SFFD, retired
Harold Gamble, Deputy Chief, SFFD, retired

Frank Cardinale, Assistant Deputy Chief, SFFD, retired
Paul Chin, Assistant Deputy Chief, SFFD, retired

Thomas W. Doudiet, Assistant Deputy Chief, SFFD, retired
Mark Kearney, Assistant Deputy Chief, SFFD, retired
Michael Morris, Assistant Deputy Chief, SFFD, retired
Brendan O’Leary, Assistant Deputy Chief, SFFD, retired
James Barden, Division Chief, SFFD, retired
Frank T. Blackburn, Division Chief, SFFD, retired
Robert Boudoures, Division Chief, SFFD, retired
James Cavellini, Division Chief, SFFD, retired
Alberto DaChuna, Division Chief, SFFD, retired
John S. Peoples, Division Chief, SFFD, retired
William Richardson, Division Chief, SFFD, retired
James Blake, Battalion Chief, SFFD, retired
Michael Castignola, Battalion Chief, SFFD, retired
Ted Corporandy, Battalion Chief, SFFD, retired
Paul Crawford, Battalion Chief, SFFD, retired
Michael Cunnie, Battalion Chief, SFFD, retired
Franklin H. Dunn, Battalion Chief, SFFD, retired
Lawrence Giovacchini, Battalion Chief, SFFD, retired

Elliott Kamler, Battalion Chief, SFFD, retired
James Lambrechts, Battalion Chief, SFFD, retired
Michael McKinley, Battalion Chief, SFFD, retired
Gary Leal, Battalion Chief, SFFD, retired

John A. Murphy, Battalion Chief, SFFD, retired
Jack Norton, Battalion Chief, SFFD, retired
Michael Ryan, Battalion Chief, SFFD, retired
Dominic Spinetta, Battalion Chief, SFFD, retired
Frank Treanor, Battalion Chief, SFFD, retired
Mario Ballard, Captain, SFFD, retired

Carl Champion, Captain, SFFD, retired

James Connors, Captain, SFFD, retired

Steven Green, Captain, SFFD, retired

Thomas Murray, Captain, SFFD, retired

Timothy O’ Brien, Captain, SFFD, retired

James J. O’Connor, Captain, SFFD,
James Lee, Captain, SFFD, retired retired

Jack O’Leary, Captain, SFFD, retired

Reid Sheridan, Captain, SFFD, retired

William Shore, Captain, SFFD, retired

Michael A. Walsh, Captain, SFFD, retired

John Carvajal, Lieutenant, SFFD, retired

Joe Collins, Lieutenant, SFFD, retired
William Emde, Lieutenant, SFFD, retired
Mark L. Johnson, Lieutenant, SFFD, retired
Robert G. McDill, Lieutenant, SFFD, retired
James H. Neil, Lieutenant, SFFD, retired
Kenneth H. Owen, Lieutenant, SFFD, retired
James Riley, Lieutenant, SFFD, retired
George Saribalis, Lieutenant, SFFD, retired
Patrick G. Ryan, Inspector, SFFD, retired
Terry Wallace, Inspector, SFFD, retired
James Mason, Chief’s Aide, SFFD, retired
Charles L. Terry, Chief’s Aide, SFFD, retired
Ray Batz, Firefighter, SFFD, retired
Michael Belcher, Firefighter, SFFD, retired
Michael Coleman, Firefighter, SFFD, retired
Michael Cuddy, Firefighter, SFFD, retired
Richard J. Gibson, Firefighter, SFFD, retired
Anthony Marelich, Firefighter, SFFD, retired
Al Markel, Firefighter, SFFD, retired

Dennis Martino, Firefighter, SFFD, retired
Steve O’Neill, Firefighter, SFFD, retired
John B. Skance, Firefighter, SFFD, retired

W. Urie Walsh, Firefighter, SFFD, retired

August 24, 2021

Marina Fire
San Francisco in flames after the 1906 earthquake. Much of the City was destroyed because of inadequate firefighting water supplies. Will we allow that to happen again as the SFPUC ignores the fact that an abundant source of water for firefighting – the largest body of water on earth – surrounds the City? Courtesy photo of a painting by W. A. Coulter.

REPRINTED from the RICHMOND REVIEW

SFPUC Projects Will Not Save Us From Fire Catastrophes

HYDRANT EXPANSION PLAN WOULD LEAVE THE WESTSIDE WITHOUT ADEQUATE WATER FOR FIGHTING POST-EARTHQUAKE FIRES

It has now been three and a half years since the Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon first published (November 2017) the story of how ill-prepared San Francisco is to fight the 70 to 120 basically simultaneous fires that experts tell us will break out following the next great Bay Area earthquake. 

Subsequently, the Civil Grand Jury (CGJ), persuaded by concerned citizens to investigate this situation, published its 2019 report “Act Now Before It Is Too Late: Aggressively Expand and Enhance Our High-Pressure Emergency Firefighting Water System (EFWS).”

Given that the City’s low-pressure hydrant system simply won’t survive a major earthquake, the two most important conclusions of that report were that in order to avoid destruction of major parts of the City by post-earthquake firestorms: (1) the high-pressure hydrant system, which serves primarily the northeastern part of the City, must be expanded to cover all San Francisco neighborhoods; and (2) time is of the essence. 

Since the findings and recommendations of the report are not binding on any City agency, the Water Department (SFPUC), which is the current guardian of the high-pressure hydrant system, is free to ignore the very essence of the CGJ recommendations. So, instead of taking a serious approach to the 13 year timeline to complete by 2034 a comprehensive Citywide expansion of the hydrant system that CGJ identified as prudent and reasonable, the SFPUC is proposing a series of neighborhood-by-neighborhood mini-projects that may stretch out until 2050 or beyond. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) tells us to expect the next big Bay Area earthquake by 2043, a date the SFPUC is ignoring. 

Westside residents should know that the SFPUC’s piecemeal project plan for the Richmond and Sea Cliff will not suppress all the random fires that will occur and which must be fought under post-earthquake conditions. The infrastructure plan that the SFPUC is proposing won’t supply adequate water pressure to the hydrants in the northern end of the Richmond or Sea Cliff areas because the nearest pump station is now on the opposite side of the City, and the plan won’t tie in with the existing high-pressure hydrant system that ends on 12th Avenue in the Richmond and 19th Avenue in the Sunset. 

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Given that the City’s low-pressure hydrant system simply won’t survive a major earthquake, the two most important conclusions of that report were that in order to avoid destruction of major parts of the City by post-earthquake firestorms: (1) the high-pressure hydrant system, which serves primarily the northeastern part of the City, must be expanded to cover all San Francisco neighborhoods; and (2) time is of the essence.”

The more hydrants that are opened between the pump stations and the northern end of the Richmond, the lower the pressure and volume of available water will be to fight fires along Geary Boulevard and California Street. The Sea Cliff neighborhood is the most affected since the SFPUC’s plan does not install even a single high-pressure hydrant anywhere north of California Street or access unlimited water to reach them. Moreover, with its plan not tying into the existing high-pressure hydrant system, those hydrants that are along 12th Avenue and 19th Avenue, that depend on getting water from pump stations on the northern and eastern waterfront, will also be starved for water supply. 

There is an obvious remedy for these issues. The existing northeastern quadrant high-pressure hydrant system is capable of supplying unlimited amounts of saltwater from the bay for firefighting, as it has done so reliably since the system was first put into service in 1913. Two northern and eastern waterfront pump stations and three fireboats can provide an enormous amount (88,000 gallons per minute) of saltwater to fight fires, which is exactly what is going to be needed for the western side of the City when the post-earthquake conflagrations start. It is absolutely critical to the survival of the Richmond and Sea Cliff districts that a high-pressure saltwater pump station be built at the north end of Ocean Beach and be incorporated into the high-pressure hydrant and pipeline expansion plan ASAP. 

However, the SFPUC has made it no secret that it doesn’t want to build a saltwater pump station on the west side of the City, precisely where it would be able to provide an inexhaustible amount of water at high pressure to protect the northern Richmond and Sea Cliff areas, and also to enhance the water supply to the line of hydrants on 12th Avenue. The SFPUC says it is “studying” the possibility of building an Ocean Beach pump station, perhaps at some nebulous time in the future. 

Vancouver BC built an underground saltwater pump station under a park in 2003 for $52 million, so the construction cost is not unreasonable. More funding is needed to expand the high- pressure pipelines and hydrants that will connect us to the existing saltwater system that is the backup to the potable water system. These two water delivery systems are not connected, nor should they be. Funding for improving infrastructure is available from state and federal sources if applied for. 

Professor Charles Scawthorn, S.E., the lead engineering consultant to the SFPUC on fires following earthquakes, provided them with his Jan. 5, 2018 review of the various options under consideration for expanding the EFWS, which is a public document. In the Discussion Section on the option to use Sunset Reservoir for EFWS, he wrote the following comment that the SFPUC ignored: 
“Another key aspect deserving discussion is the whole concept of using Sunset Reservoir as an EFWS source. … The Pacific Ocean: it was ironic that San Francisco burnt for three days due to lack of firefighting water, when it is surrounded on three sides by the largest body of water on earth. Construction of a West Side Salt Water Pump Station (WSSWPS) would be very beneficial and eliminate the need for using the potable water in Sunset Reservoir, a precious resource particularly following a major earthquake.” 

Bottom line: The only way the Richmond and Sea Cliff districts are going to survive the fires that will inevitably follow the next big earthquake is with a hydrant system having an inexhaustible water supply from a saltwater pump station at the north end of Ocean Beach. If that’s not part of the plan – and right now it isn’t – it will be impossible for the SFFD to control the post- earthquake conflagrations in our neighborhoods. 

Can Supervisors Connie Chan, Gordon Mar and Catherine Stephani successfully fight for adequate post-earthquake fire protection for our homes and businesses, or is the SFPUC going to be allowed to shortchange the northwest quadrant of the City by leaving us with a permanently inadequate firefighting system? Now is the time for Richmond and Sea Cliff residents to demand equal and adequate protection from post-earthquake fires. Otherwise our neighborhoods will, quite simply, not survive the inevitable firestorms. Time is of the essence to commit to completing our protection system before the next major earthquake hits. 

This article was reprinted from the Richmond Review at the behest of Nancy Wuerfel, a government fiscal analyst and served as a member of the Park, Recreation, Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) for 9 years.

August 2021

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

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.

quote marks

... 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.

quote

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.

quote marks

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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