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1906 Fire in San Francisco
This image shows San Francisco in flames after a 7.8-earthquake struck in the early morning hours of April 18, 1906.

Progress on Westside Firefighting Falls Short

Budget for infrastructure leaves neighborhoods vulnerable in an emergency

• • • • • • • • • • February 2024 • • • • • • • • • •

Although a 2020 City bond measure raised at least $151 million to fund more robust water pipelines in San Francisco’s westside neighborhoods to help put out potentially massive fires after a major earthquake, bad math and inflation are burning through that money, leaving large areas more vulnerable to conflagrations following the “big one.”

low pressure hydrent
One of 9,000 low pressure hydrants fed by domestic
water mains with service connections to every building
in SF. During a major earthquake tens of thousands
of these connections will break. The result will be
infufficient pressure to put out likely fires.

At a Jan. 22, 2024, meeting of the Land Use and Transportation Committee for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the competing interests and challenges faced by the City’s public safety departments making longer term plans were brought to light.

The Emergency Firefighting Water Supply (EFWS) system features much stronger pipelines operating separately from the City’s main water system.

Initially built after the 1906 earthquake because so many water mains and connections in the regular system were broken, resulting in insufficient water pressure to fight fires, it was completed in 1913 when most of San Francisco was built up in the northern and eastern parts of the City.

high pressure hydrants
One of 1,500 high pressure hydrants of the Auxilliary
Water Supply System (AWSS) fed by the Twin Peaks
reservoir, the two salt water pump stations, and the
fireboats. Installed between 1906 and 1913, they
presently do not serve the Richmond, Sunset or Bayview
where hundreds of blocks of wood-frame homes exist.

After some additions in 1986, the furthest the system goes west is 12th Avenue in the Richmond District and 19th Avenue in the Sunset District. The hydrants for these are identified by red tops in the Richmond and black tops in the Sunset.

Former city supervisors Sandra Lee Fewer and Gordon Mar both pushed for the expansion of this system into western neighborhoods. Current District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan and District 4 Supervisor Joel Engardio also support expansion of the EFWS.

Voters support firefighting upgrade

In March of 2020, Proposition B passed – with 82% in favor – for a bond of $628.5 million to improve post-earthquake firefighting infrastructure.

While much of that bond money was slated for making firehouses and other firefighting infrastructure more earthquake resistant, more than $151 million of it was allotted for expansion of the EFWS system into the westside neighborhoods.

In June of 2021, the SFPUC presented a plan showing EFWS pipelines running north from a pump station at Lake Merced through neighborhoods in the outer Sunset and Richmond districts, listing them as “funded” by the bond money.

Richmond Fire
RICHMOND DISTRICT - Geary Blvd & Parker Street gas main rupture. Aafter almost three hours, PG & E was finally able to shut off the flow of the gas that fed this fireball. No AWSS hydrants were available in the proximity of the fire. Water from the low pressure hydrants was not sufficient to put streams of water between the fire and the adjacent blocks of the conflagration.

At a meeting of the Board of Supervisors’ Government Audit and Oversight Committee in 2023, however, a revised plan showed the proposed pipelines for the entire Richmond District west of 12th Avenue as “unfunded,” as was the Outer Sunset District pipeline running north of Lawton Street.

quote marks

“What happens if you use up all your drinking water?” said Tom Doudiet, former SFFD deputy fire chief who oversaw the pipeline expansion before 2010, when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom moved the program from the fire department to the SFPUC in an attempt to balance the City budget. “How do you know that you’re going to be able to restore your drinking water supply in the days and weeks and maybe months after the earthquake?”

At the most recent meeting last month, District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan said the original estimate the BOS and the voters were given is wrong.

The original estimate to build out the system was roughly about $15 million per mile, but after a more up-to-date cost estimate taking inflation into account, they learned it is actually roughly about $42 million per mile.

Supervisor Connie Chan
Budget Chair Connie Chan

“And that’s a very significant change and it requires some real effort,” Chan said.

“The project’s greatest challenge is that the most recent cost estimate produces significantly higher project costs than previously estimated in the planning phase. The higher costs are primarily due to scope refinement and addition of design details,” said the SFPUC’s Director of Water Capital Programs Katie Miller. “Also, post-COVID market conditions have significantly higher materials and labor costs and we’re seeing that with all our capital improvement projects across the board.”

“In addition, the SFPUC has evaluated what costs should appropriately be funded by water 10-year capital program bond funding, which we have concluded is the cost for the seismically reliable water pipelines,” Miller said. “This has resulted in a significant proposed increase in the water CIP (Capital Improvement Program) bond funding in the SFPUC’s 10-year capital improvement budget that is proposed to our commission.”

“Previously we committed $55 million, and now we’re recommending $145 million over 10 years to fund these pipelines. This will go to our commission this month for approval in February,” she said.

Since 2010, three bond measures have been passed, totaling $308 million for EFWS system improvements or 21% of all funds raised by those bonds for improving public safety infrastructure, with most of the rest going to fire or police stations and other emergency facilities.

Water main breaks
This map indicates the number of municipal water main breaks in the City from 2009-2016 — in the absence of any major earthquakes. This underscores the vulnerability of the potable water system to catastrophic failure following a major earthquake. The low-pressure hydrant system, whis is supplied solely by these municipal water mains, will be insufficient in an emergency like an earthquake.

The City’s Office of Resilience and Capital Planning Director Brian Strong says the General Obligation Bond (GOB) program will be up to $4 billion by 2045; the City’s entire capital plan for the next 10 years is $2.1 billion.

The next bond program is scheduled for 2028 and is estimated to be $310 million.

“We would love that to go higher, but we’re going to need to see property values go up before we’re likely to see that number go up or we’re going to have to make some decisions about changing the cap that we’ve put in place for our geo-bond program,” Strong said.

“The discussions about how that $310 million bond is going to be split between fire stations, police stations and EFWS is to be determined,” he said. “We’ve already been approached by both police and fire and likely in the next update to the capital plan, which will start in September or so, we’ll begin to have those discussions about how we think about splitting this amount in a way that’s fair for everyone.”

Current plans do not include a new seawater pump station on the City’s west side. This is one of two contentious points that critics of the SFPUC’s plans have been arguing about for years.

AWSS pipeline plan
The SFPUC’s revised plan indicate “unfunded” pipelines.

Alternative Plan

The other is the SFPUC’s plan to abandon the idea of an entirely separate pipeline system for post-earthquake firefighting on the west side and instead combine it with the potable water system that serves everyday uses.

Critics, including former fire department officials, say that because the Hetch Hetchy water supply comes from more than 167 miles away, crosses three major earthquake faults, goes under the bay and then parallels the San Andreas Fault for 25 miles up the peninsula, it is foolish to use potable water from reservoirs to fight fires if seawater is an alternative.

Tom Doudiet
Thomas W. Doudiet

“What happens if you use up all your drinking water?” said Tom Doudiet, former SFFD deputy fire chief who oversaw the pipeline expansion before 2010, when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom moved the program from the fire department to the SFPUC in an attempt to balance the City budget. “How do you know that you’re going to be able to restore your drinking water supply in the days and weeks and maybe months after the earthquake?”

“The co-benefit pipelines will have Lake Merced water, so it is non-potable,” Miller of the SFPUC told the Board’s committee last month. “We will do that for ‘the big one,’ but we will start putting the fires out, especially after a smaller earthquake or if it seems manageable, we’ll start with the potable system first.

“We’ll start with seeing what we can do and when the fire department says, ‘that’s not enough,’ we’ve got to go to Lake Merced. Then it’s a boil-water order for the City or for that outer region,” Miller said. “But the benefit is that it’s a singular pipeline, a singular pipe loop, that after the fires are put out, we can disinfect that pipeline pretty quickly. Our guys can do that in less than 24 hours with chlorine bleach.

water source mapT
Assuming SF's water supply will remain completely intact following a M7.9 earthquake of unknowable epicenter or duration is a matter of mere conjecture.

“And then we will have that potable pipeline network that people can get water from,” she explained. “Most likely, that big of an earthquake, we’re going to be issuing a boil-water order citywide anyway because there are going to be multiple pipeline breaks. So, coming back from that big, big earthquake is going to just take a long time of recovery.

“We feel like having this pipeline that we can get potable water back in within 24 hours and be able to have people be able to walk to fire hydrants and get potable water is going to be a major, major improvement for emergency recovery.”

Thomas Pendergast is a reporter living on the Westside.

February 2024

Thomas Pendergast.
Thomas Pendergast

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