Water Wheels

San Francisco residents tour wastewater facilities on bicycles and learn the value of clean water and the importance of infrastructure.
Water Wheels
Tours cover the entire spectrum of the processes, from pretreatment through secondary treatment.

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With a compact city covering 46 square miles, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission prefers bike tours to explore its wastewater plants, collection system and pump stations with community members. The Second Annual Wastewater Whirl took place last October.

“San Francisco is great because it’s seven by seven square miles,” says Jean Walsh, SFPUC communications manager, who organizes the tours. “You can get from one end of the city to the other in a short time. It’s not a sprawling city. We can cover our whole collection system by bicycle in just an afternoon, so it lends itself very well.”

The two-part tour totals 25 miles, although riders can opt out after the first 10 miles. Most information is shared during that first leg when plant staff and community members cycle from the first of three wastewater treatment plants to pump stations, odor-control stacks, capital projects and outfalls.

Lead the way

Walsh and a handful of staff members lead the tours. The groups stop to gather around each structure and discuss what they see. “For example, the riders may not see anything but a fence and a piece of concrete, but we explain that it’s a pump station and why it’s important,” says Walsh.

The tour begins at the Southeast Water Pollution Control Plant (250 mgd design), then heads up through the city to the North Point Wet-Weather Facility (150 mgd design), and ends at the Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant (65 mgd design) in the southwest corner of the city.

SFPUC superintendent of operations and avid cyclist George Engel says, “We start with actually riding our bikes through the entire plant, from pretreatment over to our secondary treatment process, basically providing general information.”

Engel uses an analogy of making coffee to explain the wastewater process. Pure water used to make coffee becomes brown water, and if it sits for a little while, sludge and scum are created — that demonstrates primary treatment. The secondary (biological) process corresponds to the body digesting the coffee and dispensing a clear to yellowish liquid. “Then we go over to our solids side to see our digesters and actually smell our biosolids before they go onto a truck,” he says.

Supporting sprockets

To get the word out about the second annual ride, the SFPUC did substantial online promotion. About 70 people showed up, from teenagers to those in their 60s. “We didn’t spend a penny on marketing or outreach for this — it was just a completely grassroots effort,” says Walsh. “We made some flyers and rode around on bikes, delivering them at bike shops and coffee shops and places where bike people hang out.”

They also sought support from a local bike club. “The main thing we did this year was partner with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition,” says Walsh. “It’s a local advocacy group with 12,000 members, and they put the bike tour in their print and digital newsletter.”

Tell me more

Riders experience the San Francisco wastewater and water systems in a unique way. “We want to let the public know a lot of work goes on behind the scenes,” says Walsh. “There’s a lot that we do as an agency, but there’s a lot the public can do, too.”

Teaching residents where their water comes from and how it is treated and distributed helps the agency gain support for infrastructure projects. “We’re entering a 20-year capital program valued at about $7 billion,” says Engel. “We want people to understand where their money is going. It’s critical to gain public support for what we’re doing. We need people to appreciate what goes into the wastewater process, realize how difficult and complicated it is to work in an urban area, and understand how costs escalate.”

Walsh adds, “It doesn’t magically happen — we have to put money into our aging infrastructure. So we’re trying to educate people that this is important. If we didn’t have a functioning sewer system, we’d be a third-world country. People are going to see their rates go up and we want to show them why.”

The bike tours give residents first-hand knowledge of how their money is being used. Walsh adds, “I think a lot of people turn the tap or flush the toilet, but they have no idea where the water is coming from, where it goes, and all the work that goes into delivering it and treating it to protect our environment and public health."


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