What Immigrant Heritage Month and the Health Crisis Mean to Alan Wong

Alan R. Wong is currently the SFPUC’s Chief Water Treatment Operator for the San Francisco, Local Retail System. He is a licensed Civil Engineer, holds a Bachelors in Science in Civil Engineering from UC Berkeley, and has various water/distribution operator certificates. With over 30 years of experience in the water industry, Wong has been with the SFPUC’s Water Quality Division for over 25 years. At the SFPUC, he has worked at the Sunol Valley and Harry Tracy Water Treatment Plants, Millbrae Yard and is now leading a team of seven water quality engineers and technicians at the City Distribution Division Yard (CDD).

Wong’s focus at CDD is not only to ensure the SFPUC meets all current and future drinking water regulations, but that the agency delivers the highest possible water quality in the City for consumer satisfaction and public health protection. This involves advising local project managers and operations staff on how to meet drinking water regulations, monitoring system operations, investigating complaint events, responding to treatment upsets for both regional and local water system events, identifying deficiencies, completing regulatory reports, researching new policies and processes, and training staff.

Alan Wong checking out the Upcountry Watershed.

Wong shared that drinking water regulations have taken off since he started in the field beginning with the 1986 Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments. More guidance on treatment and operations helped to prevent waterborne disease outbreaks (particularly after the Milwaukee crypto outbreak in 1993 where over 400,000 people got sick), disinfection with not just chlorine, but ozone and ultraviolet light, identification and treatment of algal toxins, taste and odor compounds, legionella in buildings, minimize lead leaching from pipes, reduction in carcinogens, as well as good clean construction practices. “There are some outstanding people in the SFPUC’s Water Quality division, who have taken an active part in the water industry, led research and put the SFPUC at the forefront,” he said. “I think the one third drop off in San Francisco’s consumer complaints last year is a cumulative impact of decades of work as operations and Capital Improvement Program projects that incorporate water quality recommendations.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic, Wong said the water department construction and operations have continued as essential work. The Water Quality team has continued to perform sanitary inspections, monitoring, and regulatory reporting. “We have been working with SFPUC Customer Service Bureau to evaluate changing usage patterns in the City, before and after the shelter-in-place order was put in place on March 17, and identify districts with potential water stagnation,” he said. “On paper, San Francisco’s downtown financial district is showing tremendous drop off in water usage. However with the help of CDD, when we tested water mains around Union Square, Embarcadero Center, Fisherman’s Wharf – places with heavy retail, hotel areas – the water had healthy chlorine residuals. It appears the increase in residential use is making up for some losses in commercial use – so the water keeps flowing around the City.”

Alan Wong leads a training session at the water quality tech conference.

Personally, he has seen COVID-19 impact many people around him. He especially empathizes with how the pandemic has impacted young people, especially students. “Many people are connected through social media and electronic devices. but nothing replaces live, in-person interaction,” he said. “For high school students, closing out senior year, celebrating youth, saying goodbye to friends, and setting out for freshman year in college – that is all so hard.” Wong shared he has seen how seniors citizens have been impacted and has a desire to find ways to help and inform them to take precautions.

Wong is a fourth generation Chinese American and growing up in the 1970’s instilled the importance of environmentalism and public service. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” he reminisced. “That was society’s attitude before the tech wave today, the dot com boom in the 90’s and conservatism in the 80’s.”

His ancestors came over to the United States over a century ago and worked on the railroads, levies, and farms, as well as worked as house servants, in laundromats and at restaurants. “Those were the only jobs they could do in those days and they lived in oldest Chinatown slums in the U.S.,” he reflected. “They fought in wars, they went to school with a GI bill, they broke down barriers for minorities, and helped make opportunities for many of us today.

When asked what Immigrant Heritage Month during June means to him, Wong stressed how the Asian community overcame and are still overcoming prejudices, stereotyping, and discrimination. He is active in politics in Millbrae and serves on the Planning Commission in that city. However, he said African Americans continue to struggle with it today, where it is a matter of life and death. “Black lives matter,” Wong said. “Let us not forget their struggle.”

Wong says that in America, everyone is a descendant of immigrants. “We all have diverse, independent thinking, yet we all need connection and to be part of a society,” he said. “These common traits alone should be enough to prompt us to practice patience, tolerance and respect for one another.”

Alan Wong cleaning up sediment deposits in University Mound Reservoir in San Francisco.