City officials present their Rain Ready plan alongside some of the new plastic flood barriers. Photo by Laura Wenus

At In Chan Kaajal Park on 17th and Folsom streets, a looming storm system was probably the furthest thing from playground visitors’ minds Tuesday morning; the sun was up and the sky was clear. But public officials, who were there to outline their plans for the rainy season, warned:

“Winter is coming.”

That reminder came from Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru, who advised all city dwellers to prepare for the incoming rainy season.

Much of the city’s sewer system is nearly a century old. And the topography puts a particularly large strain on basins like the area around 17th and Folsom, which is low and notorious for flooding when downpours overwhelm the sewer system.

Public Utilities Commission General Manager Harlan Kelly said that, on a dry day, the system might handle 70 million gallons of water. On a wet day, that could quickly jump to 800 million gallons.

Although the city is working on improvements to its aging sewer system, the extreme weather that comes with a shifting climate is a challenge.

“We need to start adapting to climate change,” Kelly said.

City administrators outlined their plan to support residents and business owners in the area through another, possibly wet, winter.

The Public Utilities Commission intends to propose spending $700 million over the next 15 years to improve the system’s resiliency to flooding.

Demonstrating the suction on the vacuum truck.

Ever since the worst flooding in recent memory, a torrential cloudburst in December 2014, various city agencies have been working hard to respond proactively when rain is on the horizon.

Residents get periodic reminders that sandbags are available, workers trim trees and clear drains, and crews deploy a new system of interlocking plastic flood barriers to keep the waters at bay.

Then there are the real heavy hitters — equipment like massive roaring vacuum trucks that can be called out to a clogged drain and suck dirt and sludge out of the pipe.

Even so, there are limits to what the infrastructure can handle.

“We cannot engineer our way out of extreme weather events,” said District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen. “Every single time there’s a heavy rainpour in San Francisco, my heart sinks.”

So Tuesday’s press conference also served as a plea for residents to do their part. San Francisco has an “adopt-a-drain” program, through which residents sign up to monitor and clear debris from drains on city streets, with training and equipment from The Public Utilities Commission.  Some 1,700 drains citywide have been adopted, but more need stewards.

The commission has also been working to help residents access flood insurance through FEMA, tripling the policies in San Francisco over the last two years.

The city also reimburses property owners for changes they make to their buildings to make them more flood-resistant, and the commission recently approved another $2 million for the program.

After resident feedback, the utility has also expanded eligible projects, streamlined the grant-application process, and tried to make other elements of reimbursement easier and faster.

“We need to work together to protect each individual property,” Ronen said.

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