S.F. Water System In Bad Shape

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S.F. Water System In Bad Shape Engineers warn old pipes, roofs could collapse, need repairs

Edward Epstein, Chronicle Staff Writer Saturday, February 24, 2001

The water distribution system in San Francisco is so old and neglected it is in danger of catastrophic failure and would cost $1 billion to fix, city engineers warned yesterday.

"This is not hyperbole or hysteria. The condition is very serious and could become grave," said Tony Flores, manager of the in-city water distribution system run by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

"It's underground and hidden from view, but it's a dire need," added Karen Kubick, project manager for the PUC's capital improvement program in the city. "Capital improvements have been largely deferred for 50 years."

The 13 reservoirs, 25 tanks, 18 pumping stations and 1,240 miles of water mains in the city are just a small part of the PUC's overall Hetch Hetchy water system, which stretches 165 miles from Yosemite National Park to the Bay Area.

In all, the city sells water to about 2.4 million customers in San Francisco, San Mateo, Alameda and Santa Clara counties. The overall system is old and in dire need of repair, with estimates for all the work ranging from $3 billion to $8 billion. The PUC is still working on an overall cost estimate.

In a presentation yesterday to Mayor Willie Brown's Public Utilities Task Force, Kubick outlined some of the problems:

-- In an earthquake of 6 to 7 magnitude, the roofs of six reservoirs would collapse, putting the reservoirs out of action. Some of the reservoirs, like the Francisco and Lombard facilities on Russian Hill, date to the Civil War.

The two Sunset Reservoirs, which provide water to more than 60 percent of the city, need new roofs to replace cracked, leaky ones. The cost would be $39 million for one, while the entire annual capital budget for water projects in the city is $34 million.

Embankments around some of the reservoirs are weakening and could give way, she warned, causing flooding.

-- Some pump stations, like the Lane Street facility in Bayview, are little more than shacks. The Aqua Vista station new Twin Peaks was seriously damaged when a Municipal Railway bus plowed into it.

-- The liners on some of the storage tanks leak, while some of the elevated tanks could easily overturn in a quake. Many tanks are near homes.

-- The city is replacing only 8 miles of water main a year, and some of the pipes are a century old.

While the need is enormous, the PUC hasn't been idle. Over the past two decades, lots of money was poured into a vast expansion of the city's water treatment facilities, to cut down on pollution of the bay and the ocean.

In 1997, voters approved a $157 million bond issue that after a long process of engineering and planning is yielding a host of renovations to the city's water system. But the work just begins to address the need, the two PUC officials said.

The city for decades has used Hetch Hetchy as a cash cow, siphoning off millions in profits from power sales to fund all kinds of programs.

Task force members were plainly angry that the PUC hasn't done more over the years to keep the water system in repair.

"Your presentation today would be laughable if it weren't so tragic," said James Fabris of the San Francisco Board of Realtors. "If a huge amount of money is going to be spent we want to be sure the money is well-spent and that it will stand the city in good stead for a long time to come."

Holger Gantz, general manager of the San Francisco Hilton, said "I shall be damned if I agree to offer another dime until I know where it's going."

Brown stopped by the meeting for a few minutes. He said he wants his task force to work with the city PUC to produce a financing plan that could win approval from the Board of Supervisors and voters.

"I want a plan that could lead to a decisive capital improvement project," the mayor said.

The PUC and Brown are already kicking around financing ideas. Some of the PUC's vast property is being sold off to developers, rents are being raised on PUC tenants, and the mayor still wants to sell bottled water from Hetch Hetchy.

But rate increases and further bond sales are still being considered.

E-mail Edward Epstein at eepstein@sfchronicle.com.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), February 27, 2001

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