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Monday, April 18, 2016

How Reliable Is SF’s Earthquake Emergency Water Supply? (Spoiler: Not Very)

Posted By on Mon, Apr 18, 2016 at 11:41 AM

click to enlarge The fireboat Phoenix, which helped put out the flames in the Marina in 1989 after the water supply failed. - WIKIPEDIA
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  • The fireboat Phoenix, which helped put out the flames in the Marina in 1989 after the water supply failed.

Today marks the 110th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and fire, which means it’s a good time to take stock of the things that could save San Francisco when another major temblor strikes the region.

One of those things is water for the Fire Department to put out infernos. In 1906, the 7.8-magnitude quake did some serious damage on its own, but the fires it created wreaked the worst havoc. To ensure that high-pressure water would be available after another temblor, San Francisco built what remains the only backup water system in any U.S. city.

However, much of the 1913 system’s infrastructure is weak and outdated. After the Loma Prieta quake in 1989, the auxiliary water supply system failed in the Marina District. According to an October story in the Chronicle, published 26 years after that dire warning, less than 50 percent of the system would be reliable after another earthquake.

So the city put bonds before voters in 2010 and 2014, both of which passed, to generate $159 million for upgrades.

The good news is tons of work is ongoing and the system is looking stronger and stronger. If you want to get into the nitty-gritty of it, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is your go-to government source. The agency took over the water system from the Fire Department in 2011 after the first bond passed the year before.

But will it be strong enough? After the bond funds are exhausted, the backup water supply is expected to be 85 percent reliable, according to the Chronicle. You don’t need to be a math genius to know that 85 is not as good as 100, even if it’s better than 47. And there are other looming questions and concerns that have popped up since bond-funded upgrade work started. Namely, how the new system will function in an emergency.

This came to the fore in early April when Supervisor Aaron Peskin urged the SFPUC to stop selling off surplus parts, such as pipes and hydrants, that it deemed unnecessary after altering plans to expand the auxiliary water system to parts of the city not currently covered. Surface-level hoses will instead bring water to those areas.

Peskin, however, was not convinced and urged the SFPUC to stop auctioning off the parts — sometimes for far less than their face value — until the integrity of the new system can be tested.

The SFPUC believes it’s on the right track and everything will go as planned, which is to say the future is impossible to predict.

Perhaps it’s smart to be extra cautious with something as important as your emergency water system. Case in point: the Fire Department’s emergency water supply at San Francisco International Airport. As the Examiner reported today, the automatic fire suppression system at SFO’s largest hangar failed in December and will cost more than $4 million to repair.
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Max DeNike

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