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Mind in the Gutter: Thankful for the Sewage System

Sf sewersIt's pouring rain outside... has been for a couple of days now.  As I go about my morning ablutions and dishwashing, preparing for splashing around in the muck, I am feeling thankful for my city's sewage system.

It's one of the unseen wonders of civilization that we've come up with a plan to deal with the hundreds of thousands of gallons of wastewater that every home and business produces every year. Clean water comes into the tap, waste water goes out from the sink, tub and toilet. No muss, no fuss. It's pretty freakin amazing.

For many people in the world, that's nothing to take for granted. As many as a billion people in the world live in slums, shantytowns or favelas.  Finding clean water to drink, taking a bath, and using the toilet are not things that people are guaranteed, and indeed have to struggle to find.  

Last Wednesday, for the teen ecology I co-facilitate at the Cal Academy, we showed our kids this stirring video about a young man in a slum in Kenya who decided to do something about the lack of toilet facilities in his neighborhood. Our teens were greatly moved by how he chose not to despair about his poor situation but to do something positive about it with his friends.

David Were is pretty inspiring, huh?

By contrast, in San Francisco we have one of the best water and sewage systems in the country.  

At the last Nerd Nite SF event I went to last week, I heard a fascinating talk about how our city's sewer system works.  It's a daunting job dealing with both the wastewater from every establishment and home in the city and with the rainwater that comes into the sewers.  

San Francisco is one of the only coastal cities that has a combined sewer system, meaning that we receive and process rainwater and wastewater into the same pipes. All that water flows into a common pipe system that runs throughout the city, goes through a multi-step treatment process, and then the treated water is released into the bay.  

By contrast, most cities have a separated sewer system, meaning that household and business wastewater is piped to a treatment plant before releasing it back into the natural water system, while rainwater is simply piped untreated from the gutters back into the water supply.  What this means is that any contaminants and chemicals that go into the gutters go straight back out into our water supply.  It's a much cheaper system to operate, but it can have longer term effects on the environment and ultimately our own health.

It's actually really ingenious how well San Francisco's system works, taking advantage of the city's hilly terrain to use gravity to do most of the work of transporting wastewater.  Check out this cool video showing how it's done.

I'm thankful that there are smart people who devised this system to literally deal with my shit.  And that there are thousands of sanitation employees working 24-7 to keep the wastewater from clogging our streets and polluting the environment.  It's a thankless job that only gets noticed when it stops working.

So thanks, sanitation workers!

See for more details about our sewer system.  It's a great way to spend a rainy day.

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