Emergency Firefighting Water Supply

By Thomas K. Pendergast

A plan for expanding the Emergency Firefighting Water Supply (EFWS) system to douse an inferno likely to follow a major earthquake is moving forward, with new pipelines proposed in addition to those already funded. 

Finding the money to pay for the additional pipelines, however, looks to be a major challenge, according to city officials at a recent committee meeting of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. 

The 1906 shaker killed thousands, many incinerated while trapped in rubble due to hundreds of broken water mains and thousands of broken service connections. The system failures eliminated the water pressure needed to fight the ensuing firestorm. In the years immediately following that devastation, the City built the Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS), a separate high-pressure water system composed of pipelines and sea-water pumps designed to withstand a massive earthquake and deliver enough water pressure to fight large fires. 

At the time, most of the City’s residents lived on the east side, so the original system was only built out, with some later expansions, as far west as 12th Avenue in the Richmond District and eventually 19th Avenue in the Sunset District. In the decades that followed, however, as the City expanded westward, the AWSS did not follow, leaving more than a dozen neighborhoods in the western and southern areas vulnerable to another devastating firestorm. 

A 2019 Civil Grand Jury report titled “Act Now Before It Is Too Late: Aggressively Expand and Enhance Our High-Pressure Emergency Firefighting Water System” (EFWS) raised questions about post-earthquake fire protection after the next major earthquake and whether firefighters will have enough water pressure to fight any resulting conflagrations. If it happens sooner rather than later, neighborhoods in supervisorial districts 1, 4, 7, 8, 9 and 11 could be vulnerable to fires  similar to the ones that destroyed much of the City in 1906. 

A $682.5 million bond measure went on the ballot in March 2020 to improve fire stations and emergency facilities across the City. It passed overwhelmingly by garnering 81% of the vote. More than $154 million of that is slated to expand the EFWS – formerly known as AWSS – into the Richmond and Sunset districts. This system of earthquake-resistant pipelines would cover large swaths of those districts and place a new pump station at Lake Merced to provide extra water for the expanded system. 

District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar said this latest report came about through a resolution that the Board of Supervisors adopted in late 2019 declaring a State of Urgency to expand the EFWS to all the unprotected neighborhoods in the City. It also called for the departments to come up with a comprehensive plan “to accomplish this tremendously important project by 2034,” Mar said. 

In 2021, however, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) issued a report offering the option of completing it 12 years later in 2046. 

SFPUC spokesperson John Scarpulla explained to Mar that the current system can supply about 80,000 gallons of water per minute (80K gpm). They estimated that, based on the projected demands in 2050, they will need an estimated water supply of 255,000 gpm for fighting fires after their “model” earthquake of 7.9 Richter scale on the San Andreas Fault, which was probably about the strength of the 1906 quake. 

“So, additional water sources, pipelines and increased capacity are needed,” Scarpulla explained. “This plan assumes fire department resources will increase with the population growth of San Francisco, so additional staffing, trucks, etc. That’s a key piece. 

“We have two different build-out timelines: we have the 2034 timeline and that had a certain cost,” he said. “We did note that to meet that timeline we would need significant additional city resources. It’s a very large project to complete in a 12-year timeline. And then we give what we think is a more realistic timeline of 25 years. So, 2046 is another timeline for building it and you would see a cost for that.”

The SFPUC’s recommended option would rely mostly on Hetch-Hetchy potable water, but would also install a pump station at Lake Merced as a backup source. To fully build out this option and include all the proposed and currently unfunded pipelines by 2034, they estimate it will cost more than $2.9 billion, or by 2046 the price would go up to more than $4 billion. 

The second option would not include Lake Merced water, instead relying on seawater pumps as a backup source if the Hetch-Hetchy water supply is not enough. To complete that by 2034 would cost more than $4 billion, or $5.7 billion if completed by 2046. 

The third option would include both Lake Merced and new seawater pumping stations, although the estimated cost would be more than $4.4 billion by 2034, or $6.1 billion by 2046. 

“The EFWS program has been primarily supported by geo-bonds. We’ve put about $260 million of voter-approved authorizations (into the existing EFWS) … over the past 10 years,” Director of Capital Planning Brian Strong said. “That’s been the largest investment in the system since it was created. So, we do see this as a high priority.” 

In the next 10 years, they have a number of other programs that they’ve been funding through their capital plan, like housing and public health facilities, or critical infrastructure like a sea wall to address a rise in sea levels, for example. 

“In the next 10 years our projections are that we have $1.2 billion in geo-bond funding available for the entire City, for all the different projects. So, when we’re talking about this level of investment, we’d have to go higher than we have for the entire City over the next 10 years,” Strong said.

“I would certainly be a strong advocate of trying to secure federal dollars to do this type of work. So far, we’ve not been successful in our discussions with FEMA or those types of organizations. They tend to only fund large infrastructure after a disaster has happened.”

He added that the California state government might be another possible source of funds for the EFWS expansion. 

The 2019 Civil Grand Jury report called for a stop-gap solution by purchasing more portable hose-tender trucks, which are essentially pumps on wheels that can draw water from a cistern or lake and cost about $1 million each. These would then be placed at strategic locations in vulnerable areas.

 “As an interim measure, by no later than June 30, 2021, the City should purchase 20 new PWSS hose tenders. These tenders should be strategically located in areas that only have low-pressure water pipelines and cisterns,” the report said. 

So far, the City has only budgeted for the SFFD to purchase five more hose tender trucks.

“And then it becomes a little tricky going forward because we don’t have the room in our current infrastructure to house an additional 10 hose tenders,” Deputy Fire Chief Tom O’Connor said. “Right now we have roughly 64 fire engines … by adding 20 more apparatus, we’d be increasing our fleet by a third and we just don’t have the physical infrastructure. So, we’ll have to talk about securing additional funding going forward. Not impossible but, like everything else in this plan, it requires more resources.”

“This is obviously going to be a very costly, expensive project to move forward,” Mar responded. “It’s helpful to have the actual cost projections included in the planning study, but I think we all know that it’s going to be even more costly if we don’t act with greater urgency to address this major infrastructure project in terms of loss of property and life in our city.”

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