Can You Smell the Love? Our St. Valentine's Day Tour Through the Sewage Plant

Categories: SF Oddities
Click the image for a guided tour of the sewage plant.

On Valentine's Day, some folks treat their honeys to breakfast -- or the whole day -- in bed. Others load up on chocolates, truffles, and the finest Hallmark and the Lifetime Channel have to offer. I'm made of far less romantic, stinkier stuff: Along with about 30 others, I spent Saturday morning on a guided tour of the city's Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant in the Sunset.

The Oceanside plant won notoriety last November when a group of prankster activists put Proposition R on the ballot, suggesting that the facility be renamed the George W. Bush Sewage Plant. Prop. R didn't pass, and Bush's career remains without a S.F. landmark. Thanks to some artful landscaping and the curve of the coastline the plant is barely visible from Great Highway; two-thirds of it are underground.

The SFPUC wants city residents to learn waterwise ways before the drought strikes California for real. Catania Galván, the SFPUC's coordinator of citizen involvement, explained how humans, as well as clouds, reservoirs, and the ocean, are part of the water cycle. The Earth contains the same amount of water now as it did in the time of the dinosaurs, she said -- it's merely in different places.

The Oceanside plant, one of three in the city, processes 80 to 89 million gallons of wastewater every day, with flow far heavier on rainy days. Wet wipes are the biggest problem, Galván says -- they clog filters (as do the city's ubiquitous plastic bags) and have to be manually removed and trucked to landfill. "Human waste, toilet paper, and the occasional goldfish" should be the only things going down your toilet, she says.

We donned bright-red hard hats and Galván led us through the plant, warning us not to touch or lean on anything. Because of the heavy rain the night before, the odor was somewhat diluted -- more of a muddy, marine smell, but with a definite fecal undercurrent. Galván wouldn't take us into the area where the water goes through its first screening (to remove trash, leaves, and other large items) because it tended to be "a bit splashy." We got a good dose of what we'd come for in the room containing the grit removal tanks -- vast, murky vats of sloshing water that looked oily and unpleasant. Most of the scum on top of the water was cooking fat -- Galván wants you to know that you shouldn't be putting that down the drain, either, since it clogs sewers and can back up into your home. And while you're being a good citizen, consider taking shorter showers and using a combination of baking soda and vinegar to clean all the surfaces in your house. (Some tips here.)

The free tours take place the second Saturday of each month, last two to two and a half hours, and are limited to 40 San Francisco residents. The next Oceanside tour is on March 14. E-mail Catania Galván for more info. 

Click here to access the 2009 Resident Tour request form (PDF). 

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