Tuesday, June 7, 2011

San Francisco's Storm Water System Hides Sustainable Secret

  Mayor Ed Lee's proposed transfer of tens of thousands of city-maintained trees over to homeowners, reminded me of something I learned in a Geology class at City College about San Francisco's original water supply, and how long ago a secret was buried.

The residents of San Francisco have always taken the lead in the 'greening' of The City, But what if we could help restore our urban watershed, and provide for our water needs at the same time?

Therein lies the secret...

  We pay a large amount of money to pump water out of Powell Station every year. This is because of the natural spring (formerly known as Hayes Creek) that begins under NOPA that still gushes water under San Francisco, flooding Powell Station with thousands of gallons of water monthly.  This source of water once provided much of the water to San Francisco's urban
residents and businesses.  This water flowed into what used to be San Francisco Bay coastline (conspicuously where Powell Station sits today). Since the turn of the 20th Century, this spring has been diverted into impermeable storm water systems and underground channels that lead directly to the Bay, preventing any of the water from being absorbed directly into the ground. This is one of many fresh springs, aquifers, and marshes that we've overrun and underutilized for over a century. There is currently no public access to the water in this closed system.

  Why aren't we tapping into this rich resource of natural water right here in our own front yard?  Because a mix of early San Francisco politics and a panicked, voting public set into action the construction of the Hetch Hetchy Water Project.  The fate of our local, natural spring was sealed indefinitely. The now aging Hetch Hetchy water system is long overdue for rehabilitation, reconstruction or demolition. A recent study has shown that we don't need the amount of water that Hetch Hetchy provides, and that San Francisco itself provides nearly all the water we need.

  We can reconnect ourselves to our own land, it's nutrients and bounty by truly embracing the gifts this peninsula provides.  Locals could stock up on fresh spring water, funded by a donation box to help maintain the tiny facility needed to access the water. Fountains could be installed at permanent parklets all over the city to provide noise calming and allow for multiple neighborhood water access points.

photo courtesy of Helen Tseng (Mission Mission)
  Urban farms (or homeowners with backyard farms) would receive city-subsidized drip irrigation systems, and rebates would be available to homeowners from the State of California to install rainwater and gray water capture systems, remove impermeable concrete from their properties, and plant native species.

  These simple ideas could promote better water quality across the Bay Area and allow future generations to focus on solving more complex sustainability goals.  This simple rerouting of one local water source could be money well spent. Artist Mona Caron depicted Hayes Creek crossing Market Street in her Market Street Railway Mural located on Church between 15th and 16th.

     "Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man."
                                                                                                           -- John Muir

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