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Oh, Shit 

Is the San Francisco sewer system in dire need of repair, or is this just another way to get taxpayers' money? Find out where you stand!

Wednesday, Mar 29 2006
Last week, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission launched a public awareness campaign to announce a three-decade plan for fixing the city's sewer system. According to officials, more than 70 percent of the city's 900 miles of underground sewers was built 70 years ago, 15 percent was built more than 100 years ago, and some portions were built more than 150 years ago, dating back to the Gold Rush. The city is continually making repairs — more than 500 a year — to the city's water mains, patching breaks and restoring caved-in areas, but the master plan is expected to address long-range solutions: how much wastewater will get dumped into the San Francisco Bay, how much will go into the ocean, and how to transfer the major sewage-handling duties from the Southeast sewage treatment plant in the Bayview district to the more neighborhood-friendly Oceanside treatment plant near the zoo. Taxpayer groups, however, are already decrying the project, saying it's sure to raise sewage rates. Are you an apologist for San Francisco's sewer system? Take our quiz and find out!

1) In a mail-home questionnaire from the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), residents were asked to rank the sewer system problems they are most concerned about: Aging and deteriorating pipes; bad odors from wastewater facilities; flooding in neighborhoods; sewage overflows into the bay and ocean during major rainstorms; and lack of disposal options for treated solid waste. Which of these issues are you most concerned about?

A) The shit smells. Although I tried to make it sound more sophisticated by using the phrase "the mephitic stench of human excrement." They'll know what I mean.

B) Oh, my. What's a sewer? (Bonus point for living in the Marina.)

C) My worry is the levees. If only they smelled bad, too ...

2) Susan Leal, general manager of the PUC, said tax increases might be needed to make the necessary upgrades to the system, which has fallen into disrepair in the wake of a voter-approved freeze on sewage rates that was only lifted in 2002. "I don't think people want our sewer system to remain in a precarious state," she said. "To me, it's a no-brainer. Without a working sewer system, without a working water system, you don't have a city." What's your response?

A) I think she meant to say "without wi-fi."

B) Stop it. You could make the same argument about a socially, politically, and commercially relevant music scene, too, and we haven't had one of those in years.

C) All right, fine. It's a no-brainer. But that's never stopped San Francisco's long-term strategic planning before!

3) Although the PUC won't have to get voters' approval for its plan, the commission is trying to raise public awareness about the sewer system's problems and has begun a publicity campaign with the slogan, "The city under the City needs to be fixed." This motto is already on billboards, bus placards, and the above-mentioned brochures, and officials will lead a series of public workshops to discuss the 30-year master plan. What slogan would you suggest to get city residents thinking about the sewage dilemma?

A) "Maybe you wanna sniff the Gold Rush."

B) "Ooh, that smell. Can't you smell that smell?"

C) "There must be a way to get rid of this shit."

4) According to the PUC, the worst-smelling areas in town are Chinatown and Fisherman's Wharf, where restaurant owners dump excess grease directly down the drains into the sewers. Have you noticed other areas of the city that are especially rank?

A) Ha. They actually believe that's grease?!?

B) Excuse me, but there are intersections in the Financial District that make me literally pass out — or maybe that's just the smell you get when you mix hair gel, Starbucks, and gym sweat.

C) Remember your last trip to the zoo? When your little tyke asked if that was the smell of animal poop, and you couldn't honestly say? That's the definition of "rank."

5) The city's master plan could face serious opposition from residents, who are unlikely to welcome new sewer pipes through their neighborhood. Also, taxpayer advocates are expected to protest the rate increases, and Barbara Meskunas, who heads the San Francisco Taxpayers Association, has already told The Chronicle, "When's it going to end? Everybody's concerned." Would you be open to paying higher sewage rates or seeing a tunnel dug in your neighborhood?

A) Forgive me, Ms. Meskunas, but who disposes of your personal waste? The poop fairy?

B) Um ... you know, the whole meaning of "Not in My Backyard" takes on a new significance when you're talking about shit.

C) C'mon. Nobody wants crap flowing beneath their houses — it would decrease the value. Much better to have an earthquake fault.

6) Jack Hoffbuhr, executive director of the American Water Works Association, told the Chronicle that about $300 billion is needed nationwide to replace cities' public sewer pipes, which doesn't even address infrastructure like pumps, holding tanks, and water-treatment systems. But garnering public support is never easy, he said, because "until there's a water main break, or a flood, or sewage backs up in your basement, you don't give it much thought." Do you agree?

A) Kinda. 'Cause even then, it's like, "I'll deal with it tomorrow."

B) Er ... well, now I'm thinking about it. Thanks, Mr. Hoffbuhr.

C) Really, there's not a day that goes by that my mind isn't on sewage. (Bonus point for adding: "I have a beautiful view of Ocean Beach, after all.")

7 And finally, what's your solution to the sewage dilemma facing San Francisco?

A) As long as someone else is dealing with it, I really don't care.

B) Ship it to Colma. It worked with the dead people.

C) Say, are we doing anything with Treasure Island?

How to score:

Score zero points for every "A" answer, one point for every "B," and two points for every "C."

0-6 points: You're right: The city needs a new sewer system. But somehow I don't see Gavin championing this one.

7-10 points: Aww, what'll it be next? Drinking water that doesn't taste like cancer? I swear, everyone is so picky around here.

11-14 points: Congratulations! You're a true apologist for the city's sewer system. And yes, San Francisco, your shit does indeed stink.

About The Author

Matt Palmquist


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