Many of San Francisco’s 1,250 miles of water pipes need to be repaired or replaced, requiring years of digging as the city races to fix an aging system, documents and data from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission reveal.
To keep the water system running smoothly, the city has embarked on a plan to dig up and replace hundreds of miles of pipeline in the coming decades at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion — all of which will be covered by water ratepayers.
To hit that goal, the SFPUC, which is overseeing the project, must more than double the length of water pipes it fixes annually, going from an average of 6 miles per year to 15.
As construction ramps up, it will tear apart asphalt, clog traffic, shut down streets and redirect buses. Downtown, which has most of the city’s oldest water pipes, will be hit hardest, and the Sunset and Richmond districts will be heavily affected.
“Fifteen miles is 150 blocks, so that’s a lot of traffic disruption; it’s major,” said Katie Miller, manager of the water enterprise division at the SFPUC.
The city, though, has no choice but to upgrade the pipes. If the SFPUC maintained the 6-mile-per-year fix rate, more than half of the pipelines in the city would surpass their age recommendations by 2040. Leaks and breaks would become unmanageable, and scarce water would be wasted.
“As everybody out West now understands, water is precious,” said Eric Goldstein, senior attorney in the National Resource Defense Council’s urban program. “The most efficient and least expensive way for us to ensure an adequate supply is to repair leaks and take steps to reduce waste.”
Root of the problem
Starting in 1930, San Francisco went through a residential construction boom, with row houses topping the last remaining sand dunes in the Sunset and high-rises popping up downtown. In the 1940s alone, approximately 38,800 new units went up citywide, according to a recent report by Paragon Real Estate Group.
To connect the new homes to running water, hundreds of miles of pipes were laid. These World War II-era relics still make up a large chunk of the city’s water infrastructure.
Roughly 28 percent of San Francisco’s pipelines were built between 1930 and 1950, according to PUC data, and 44 percent of the nearly 500 water-main breaks over the past half decade were in pipes built during the time period.
“It’s a higher than usual amount of breaks,” Miller said.
Part of that can be blamed on their age, but another factor is the caliber of the pipes. During the war, much of the nation’s iron was used for military equipment, leaving municipalities picking from the proverbial scrap heap.
“There was not a lot of quality assurance at the time, so there was a lot of impurities in the ore that are now resulting in breaks,” Miller said.
Replacing 15 miles of aging pipes annually will cost an estimated $48 million per fiscal year. If the pipes from the ’40s and ’50s begin breaking down earlier than expected, construction — and costs — will increase. Water ratepayers would have to foot the bill.
“If this turns out to be a more severe problem than we are predicting — if it is above and beyond that 15 miles — then we may need a special funding program,” said Tyrone Jue, the utility’s spokesperson. The funds would probably come from a bond or by raising water prices.
With so many streets torn up, some are seeing possible opportunities.
“It’s an opportunity to rethink things,” said Charisma Acey, assistant professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley. “To not just lay in the old infrastructure, but also think about how we put in new infrastructure.”
One idea is high-speed Internet. Though the city is home to some of the world’s biggest tech companies, its Internet speeds lag. Thanks to the city’s Dig Once ordinance, though, authorities must at least consider installing fiber conduits for high-speed Internet during any pipe work that requires excavation.
With so many water pipes due to be replaced and repaired, there will be plenty of opportunities to speed up Web browsing.
“The PUC project will be a big part of the opportunity” to expand, said Miguel Gamiño, executive director of the Department of Technology. “It’s not just having more fiber, but where we put fiber, which allows us to have a very resilient, cost-effective network.”
That’s small consolation for some business owners in the Haight neighborhood. For the past two months, tractors, sparks and pounding sounds have supplanted shoppers on stretches of Haight Street, as the city repairs local sewer and water lines.
The PUC expects the project to impact 12 city blocks and stretch into fall of next year.
“Construction has to be done. We understand that,” said Luke Martinez, manager of the novelty toy and clothing store Super 7. “But September is already a hard month for all of us, and I doubt anyone has made more money because of construction. ... I wouldn’t want to shop on Haight Street right now.”