Preparedness & Recovery

San Francisco Bolsters Flood Resilience in Face of Climate Change

The Public Utilities Commission also is working with other city departments to build additional flood-resilience measures into San Francisco’s planning and design codes.

by Dominic Fracassa, San Francisco Chronicle / October 31, 2017

(TNS) - With last week’s heat wave done and gone, replaced by cooler temperatures and rain in the forecast for later this week, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is making the winter rainy season a top-of-mind issue.

Last week, the agency vastly expanded a grant program that reimburses flood victims who want to install improvements like doorway seals, flood gates or plumbing upgrades to lessen or prevent future flood damage from rainstorms. The move served as a prelude to the kickoff Tuesday of the PUC’s RainReadySF initiative, an annual campaign to get out the word about preparing for floods.

The PUC also is working with other city departments to build additional flood-resilience measures into San Francisco’s planning and design codes.

In recent years, the PUC’s annual rain-readiness program has taken on a new sense of urgency as the city focuses on mitigating the effects of climate change. Sea level rise and the persistent threat of stronger winter storms, like the ones last season, make San Francisco’s aged sewer system particularly vulnerable to flooding. Unlike other coastal cities in the state, San Francisco’s sewers collect and treat wastewater and storm runoff in the same system, which means the system can be strained during periods of sustained heavy rainfall.

The PUC has a number of major infrastructure upgrades planned through 2032, including extensive renovations of the city’s water treatment plants, and replacement of sewer pipes. But the rain-readiness campaign is aimed at closing the gap between the city’s efforts to mitigate flooding and what individual home and business owners can do, said PUC General Manager Harlan Kelly Jr.

“It’s a partnership,” he said. “It’s about the entire city being rain-ready.”

The PUC had set aside $250,000 each year for the flood grant program since it began in 2013. But last Tuesday, the commission increased that amount to $1.75 million for this fiscal year. The agency expects to bump that up to $2 million a year beginning in 2018. So far this year, the PUC has awarded $140,000 to property owners through the grant program, with an additional $125,000 likely to be disbursed after improvement projects are completed.

To date, the PUC has offered to reimburse property owners for up to $30,000 worth of qualifying flood repair jobs, but Kelly said the agency is considering raising that cap, possibly to as high as $100,000 per property.

Nancy Hayes knew her office in a low-lying area of the Mission District was prone to flooding, but she was still caught off guard by the torrent of rain that fell during a December 2014 storm that drenched the Bay Area.

“I knew this was a flood area, but we just weren’t paying attention,” she said. “We got to the office and there was maybe 2 inches of water everywhere.” She estimated she suffered about $35,000 in damage. “We had to get rid of everything,” she said.

Not long afterward, Hayes applied for PUC reimbursement for a $9,000 floodgate she had installed in front of her garage door.

“I’m glad I did it,” she said.

Stefani Harrison, a PUC project manager, said plans are under way to expand the program, including by adding to the list of flood-prevention projects that qualify for reimbursement. Currently, the PUC reimburses property owners only for specific plumbing upgrades, doorway barriers and other types of water gates. Additions to the eligible project list could come by early next year, Harrison said, noting that the PUC will soon propose a range of projects, like installing garage door seals, water-tight windows and driveway “bumps,” that can help keep water from flowing onto private property from sidewalks. She said the agency is also working to ease the process of applying for a flood grant, starting with curating a list of qualified designers and contractors.

“The more options people have in terms of choosing how to do deal with (flooding) the better,” said Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who represents the Mission District, portions of which are especially vulnerable to flooding each year because of Mission Creek, which runs underground.

Kelly said the PUC is also working with the city administrator’s office, the Department of Building Inspection and the City Planning Department to develop an official San Francisco flood map to define the city’s most at-risk areas. Kelly said the map will be used to keep property owners better informed about which parts of the city are prone to flooding.

“We hear many stories like, ‘I bought this property, but I didn’t know I was in a flood area,’” Kelly said. “We want folks to know if they’re in the flood zone or not.”

By outlining flood zone contours, the map will also help the city better enforce existing flood-prevention codes, Kelly said, and inform the city’s efforts to develop new construction standards in flood areas. In the future, new construction or major remodeling projects in known flood zones may have to abide by additional rules aimed at making structures more flood resilient.

“New construction, for example, would have flood-proof standards built into the building code,” Harrison said.

Dominic Fracassa is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: dfracassa@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @dominicfracassa


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