Financing Plan for Firefighting Infrastructure Released

By Thomas K. Pendergast

A study on financing the expansion of the Emergency Firefighting Water System (EFWS) – a separate heavy-duty pipeline system designed to fight a devastating conflagration following a major earthquake – was recently released by city agencies.

The report was in response to a resolution passed by the Board of Supervisors last September which called for the Office of Resilience and Capital Planning (ORCP) to come up with a financing plan by Dec. 31, 2022, to expand the EFWS.

The EFWS, formerly known as the Auxiliary Water Supply System, was initially built after the 1906 earthquake because so many water mains and connections in the regular system were broken that there was almost no water pressure left to fight fires. A fire break was created along Van Ness Avenue and a U.S. Navy firefighting ship pumping seawater from off shore was able to stop the fires from going further west.

Black-topped EFWS hydrants reach west as far as 19th Avenue in the Sunset District (above) and red-topped EFWS hydrants go west as far as 12th Avenue in the Richmond District. The west sides of both districts are only equipped with the regular white hydrants without the resilience and high-pressure capabilities of the EFWS. Photo by Thomas K. Pendergast.

Completed in 1913, at the time most of San Francisco was built up in the northern and eastern parts of the City. After some additions in 1986, the furthest this 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 4 Supervisor Joel Engardio also supports expansion of the EFWS.

“We must plan and act before it’s too late,” Engardio said. “When disaster strikes, the Sunset’s lack of EFWS infrastructure will only harm citywide disaster response and recovery efforts. While this report is an important first step, I am committed to working with my colleagues on the Board of Supervisors to ensure we prioritize financing and construction of this critically important infrastructure. We must remain focused on this long-term goal to help save countless lives, businesses and homes.”

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission looked at future performance requirements for the EFWS based on population and development projections to the year 2050. That reports concludes that it would cost a total of nearly $2 billion in current dollars, nearly $3 billion if completed by 2034 and $4 billion if completed by 2046.

In March 2020, SF voters approved a $628.5 million bond measure to fund upgrades and improvements to the City’s firefighting infrastructure, part of which is for expanding the EFWS system into westside neighborhoods. But, according to the recent study, this will not be enough.

“The large EFWS extension and citywide capacity upgrades identified in the EFWS 2050 Planning Study require much greater investment than projected funding levels and borrowing capacity allow,” the report concludes. “While General Obligation (G.O.) and water revenue bonds comprise the bulk of the funding to date, the EFWS competes with other urgent capital needs throughout the City for future allocations of these funds. The City should continue to make incremental allocations … to the EFWS, as funding and other priorities allow. Concomitantly, developer agreements, and Mello-Roos financing through a Community Facilities District can provide a supplementary source of funding for the system.

“The G.O. bonds are the most cost-effective financing mechanism. However, limitations on debt capacity necessitate the exploration of other funding options,” the study concludes.

These other options are Fire Protection Fees through an Impact Fee; Mello-Roos Bonds through a Community Facilities District; a temporary water utility user surcharge; Tax Increment Financing Districts and federal grant funding.

That last source from the Feds comes with a caveat.

“Grant funds could be sought to retrofit existing utility systems, but not for the expansion of fire suppression systems like EFWS,” according to the study. “Grant funds could be sought to reduce the risk of ignition through gas-shut-off values or building materials. In addition, a project must be considered cost effective in order to be eligible.”

Retired SF Fire Department (SFFD) Assistant Deputy Chief Tom Doudiet was one of the first to raise the alarm about the lack of action to expand the EFWS pipelines westward.

In an emailed response for comment, he said the proposal to expand the system to the western and southern neighborhoods goes back to the 1960s as part of the SFFD’s master plan. Since then, a Civil Grand Jury (CGJ) reported on the subject in 2003 and more recently another CGJ called for its expansion in 2019.

“That the City seems to finally have begun to consider how the expansion into the 15 unprotected residential neighborhoods might plausibly be funded, 60 years after the initial proposals by the SFFD, speaks volumes about our collective ignorance/amnesia/indifference/complacency about the history and geologic realities of living in the Bay Area; the fundamental lack of understanding that when the long-anticipated 7.9 earthquake finally strikes on one of our four major earthquake faults, 80% of the property damage and loss of life San Francisco will not be the result not of shaking, but of fires,” Doudiet said.

“The cost estimates, of course, accelerate the longer the completion of the high-pressure hydrant expansion project is pushed out. The 2034 date was suggested by the 2019 CGJ report because 15 years seemed like a generous amount of time for the project to be completed, especially considering that between 1908 and 1913 city engineers were able to design, install and put into service the 10.5-million-gallon Twin Peaks Reservoir, two saltwater pump stations, five saltwater fireboat manifolds and 887 high-pressure hydrants, while armed with only slide rules, paper and pencils, and basic engineering competence – in other words, none of the hi-tech tools today’s engineers have at their disposal.”

In the meantime, hose tender fire trucks, which cost about $1 million each, could extend the system out into neighborhoods that aren’t covered now.

“Each hose tender can lay out about 4,000 feet of hose, so nearly close to a mile,” SFFD Deputy Assistant Fire Chief Tom O’Connor said in 2021. “We can relay water and create an above-ground water main if the other water mains break. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s the best solution we have until the (EFWS) system does get built out. Right now, in the pipeline we have money for three new ones to add to it, because the Grand Jury report called for an additional 20.”

The SFFD has four of the trucks in service now, but these older models are limited by the fact that they have no water pumps, so they still require a regular fire truck engine to pump water out of cisterns or lakes. In the event of a major conflagration after an earthquake, this could lead to a shortage of available fire trucks.

Frank Blackburn retired from the SFFD in 1991 as an assistant chief after a 32-year career with the department. He was also the director for earthquake preparedness.

“The use of existing G.O. Bond money and Revenue Bond money is good, and if a bond issue is not possible for immediate additional use, then use of funding from a charge for Fire Protection, such as on a sewer surcharge of water bills, with the charge based upon the usage of each water meter. That way each would pay their fair share based on current use, commercial and high rises more than single-family homes to keep things fair,” Blackburn wrote in an emailed response. “In 1986, I was on a committee with the SFWD and the City Controller’s office in researching such additional funding methods.”

The current plan would pump water out of Lake Merced as a backup source and send it north. However, questions remain if there would be enough pressure available from that source to do any good in the outer or middle Richmond District.

That’s why some, like Blackburn, are calling for the installation of a saltwater pump near the northern end of Ocean Beach.

“What is missing from this project is the recommended underground high-pressure saltwater pump station at the foot of Fulton Street,” he said. “This pump station is needed for supply from the Pacific Ocean, with unlimited volume available, and recommended by the Civil Grand Jury report of this matter and consultants to the SFPUC.”

Dick Morten was on an advisory committee for seismic safety to Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2010 and he said the cost would have been cheaper if the City had acted after the first CGJ report in 2003.

“It has gone up because of dereliction on the part of the City not to do something,” Morten said. “They are basically sleepwalking toward conflagration.”

4 replies »

  1. I love this
    Great news that a recent study was released by city agencies on financing the expansion of the Emergency Firefighting Water System. The expansion will be critical in saving numerous lives, businesses, and homes during disasters. It is a commendable effort to prioritize financing and construction of this critically essential infrastructure. This is a positive step towards ensuring the safety of the residents and the city’s future.
    Eamon O’Keeffe
    Great DIY Ideas


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