Bike Tour of SF Sewers Plumbs Local Depths

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It was almost a year ago that San Francisco was surprised by a flash flood that swept up out of the sewer system into the streets. Geysers sprayed from manholes and gushed down into the subway, leaving intersections and tunnels nearly impassible beneath a mixture of rainwater and raw sewage.

“People either don’t want to talk about sewage, or as soon as they flush it they want it to be gone,” said Miles Epstein, an artist at Workspace in the Mission. Within minutes of the sewer eruption, a foot of water had filled the gallery. “On that day in October when the water came up out of the floor drains, it was front and center in our lives,” he recalled.

And it’s remained a focus ever since. This Wednesday at 7pm, Epstein hosts Fathoming, a preview bike-tour of San Francisco’s sewer systems, accompanied by a panel talk on local water history and a watery art show.

The timing and location of last year’s flood was coincidental: Workspace just happened to be showing a series of films about water, and the building itself was previously a laundry warehouse. When the Department of Public Works came to assess the flood damage and begin repairs, they began to talk with Epstein about water, and the groundwork for Fathoming was formed.

The event kick-off Wednesday will feature a panel including local artist Judy West alongside water experts Greg Braswell and Joel Pomerantz.

Pomerantz, a fixture of the local water history scene (yes, there’s a local water history scene), is looking forward to the talk. “We’re presenting about the history of Mission Creek and why it became the neighborhood’s first sewer,” he said, “then why it stopped being used as a sewer, and what replaced it, including the Grunksy plan in 1899, which still holds water, so to speak, in the city’s sewer design.”

Speakers will also touch on future plans for sewerage as well as for natural water sources like springs and creeks, as well as the hotly contested historical configurations of bodies of water such as the lagoon that is said to have once bordered Dolores Park.

Our wastewater system is currently at a turning point. Over a hundred years old, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the system to conform to environmental regulations. Overflows like the major event last Ocotober happen several times throughout the year, though seldom as visibly. Over the next few years, DPW engineers will formulate plans for the next generation of cleaner, safer wastewater disposal.

Wednesday night’s “sewer geek-out panel” is an excellent guided peek into that process. It’ll be followed by a bike tour on Saturday, meeting at 2pm at Workspace, and returning for a 5pm art party. Featured artists include Terri Saul, Miles Epstein, Hughen/Starkweather, Linda Gass, and Leo Germano.

“Yes, there are rivers under San Francisco,” says the event announcement, then adds, “No, we will not be riding inside the sewer.”