January 2013

City Plans for New Sewage Facilities in Southside San Francisco

By Liz Melchor

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) is planning to sink big money into District 10 to upgrade the City’s sewer and water system. The Southeast Wastewater Treatment Plant digesters — ten huge vessels at the corner of Phelps and Jerrold streets, that are used to transform solids sorted from sewage into useable compost and landfill — are more than sixty years old, and need to be replaced. And SFPUC wants to build another water treatment plant to produce recycled – non-potable – water that will be piped to San Francisco’s biggest water users. 

The two efforts fall under the Sewer System Improvement Project (SSIP) and the Water System Improvement Project, multi-decade, multi-billion dollar undertakings by SFPUC to make capital improvements to a system that has elements that are more than hundred years old. 

The Southeast Plant processes more than 80 percent of the City’s sewage. The digesters the treat the sludge — the solid waste from sewage — rely on outdated technology, are in serious disrepair, and not fit to withstand a big earthquake. According to India Basin resident Alex Lantsberg, a member of the SFPUC Citizen’s Advisory Committee, a group of 17 San Franciscans who advise the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on public utility projects, the digesters are the system’s kidneys and colon. “They are the life support network, you can’t live without them,” he said. 

While SFPUC considers the replacement of the digesters the marquee project of the SSIP’s first phase, the work won’t be completed until 2022. According to Lily Madjus, SSIP communications manager, the City hasn’t even settled on a location for the new digesters.

For Michael Hamman, an India Basin resident and member of the Southeast Digester Taskforce (SDT), the lack of urgency by SFPUC to replace the digesters is frustrating. “It has been looked at, studied, decided, why hasn’t this been done?” Espanola Jackson, a community activist and fellow SDT member agreed. “They should have been replaced 10 years ago,” she said. “We spent 18 months discussing this crap.”

SDT was a nine member advisory group made up of Bayview property owners, business owners, and community activists. They spent 18 months in 2009 and 2010 examining the best location to site the new digesters. The Taskforce’s final recommendation was almost unanimous — with one holdout — in favor of building the digesters at the same location as the existing ones, next to the Southeast Plant. The holdout, Lantsberg, wanted them moved to Pier 94, further away from residential neighborhoods and as a way to free-up prime land in Bayview. That plan was dismissed by other Taskforce members due to its high costs and lengthy construction process. “Basically, there are 1,000 reasons why it should go [at the Southeast Treatment Plant], and 1,000 reasons why it shouldn’t go anywhere else,” said Hamman.

Having them built next to the old digesters means they will remain in a neighborhood that mixes residential, commercial and industrial uses. Carmen Acosta, of Q-Auto Body, was worried when the shop moved in around the corner from the Southeast Plant six years ago because she remembered as a kid smelling the sulfur-sewage odor along certain parts of Third Street. But she said that hasn’t been a problem. “We don’t smell it,” Acosta said.

But others do smell it. “Odors bother everyone,” said Hamman. “The current digesters were worn out 20 years ago, they get patched but they often leak gas. They smell.”

Replacing the existing digesters with new technology should mitigate the odor issue. Mark Klaiman, co-owner of Pet Camp, which is located across the street from the plant, admitted that there was an odor, but thinks the plant makes for a good neighbor. Klaiman was also a SDT member, and voted to recommend the digesters stay where they are. “The plant has been a good neighbor. When they have a problem, they are generally responsive,” said Klaiman.

A nearby lot at Selby and Evans is one of five sites being considered by SFPUC to house the Eastside Recycled Water Project. Most of the City’s drinking water comes from the Toulumne River, via the Hetch-Hetchy reservoir. Under the recycling initiative water would be taken from the Southeast plant and processed once more to make it safe for non-potable purposes. Currently, all of the City’s treated water is discharged into the ocean or the bay. Recycled water could be used for irrigation, toilets, and commercial or industrial uses, such as cooling systems, potentially replacing more than two million gallons a day of Hetch-Hetchy water.

For the last few months, the SFPUC has been trolling neighborhood events, iPads in hand, to teach people about the benefits of recycled water, and ask them their preferred site for a recycling water treatment plant. Of the five sites — all of which are located in Southside San Francisco, and include Seawall Lot 337 across from AT&T park, Pier 70, the Selby and Evans lot, Pier 90-94, and Griffith Pump Station in Hunters Point Shipyard — Alison Kastama, SFPUC’s regional communications manager, said so far there’s been no clear winner or loser among those polled. 

Residents were also asked what they thought were the positives and negatives of such a system. “One thing they did mention in the survey was the positive aspect of creating jobs and jobs for the neighborhood” said Kastama. “This will be mentioned in our review.”

The recycling plant will be less than an acre in size, and is also a long way off, with construction slated to start in 2018. In addition to the plant, new pipelines – colored purple, to denote their use to convey recycled water – must be installed. However, those pipelines won’t extend throughout the City, with recycled water instead dedicated to a limited number of high use clients. For instance, most Mission Bay developments feature dual plumbing as a result of a 1991 City ordinance that requires large new construction and remodel projects to be plumbed for recycled water. 

Both projects mean a lot of construction activity in the district in the coming decade. But some Southside residents won’t believe that SFPUC is actually doing the work until they see it. “I will be excited when I see the first bulldozer out there,” said Hamman.

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