Stormwater Schoolyards: Joining the Fight to Protect Our Sewer Infrastructure

San Francisco’s combined sewer system treats both the wastewater from our homes and offices, and the stormwater that falls from the sky (approximately 10 billion gallons a year) and lands on our paved surfaces when it rains. By leveraging a public-private partnership approach, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) is well on its way to achieving the long-term goal of managing 1 billion gallons of that rain—about 10 percent of what falls on our city— using green infrastructure by 2050. 

The SFPUC has been constructing green infrastructure projects in prime low-lying areas of each of the eight watersheds in the City, but this approach will only get us so far.  Larger-scale projects implemented by owners of expansive, impervious parcels can make a big difference in managing stormwater and improving our collection system performance during wet weather. San Francisco has identified schools, and in particular the San Francisco Unified School District, as a critical partner to implementing green infrastructure citywide

To encourage the implementation of green infrastructure projects on school sites with these huge amounts of impervious surfaces, the SFPUC recently launched its first large-scale Green Infrastructure Grant Program, providing grants to large public and private property owners. To ensure the successful launch of the grant program, the SFPUC partnered with the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) to pilot the delivery of a $1 million Robert Louis Stevenson Stormwater Schoolyard Project which included a variety of green infrastructure features designed to manage stormwater while promoting nature play and educational opportunities in the schoolyard.  

“The pilot allowed the team to work through issues and challenges with the grantee/grantor relationship, while identifying any potential barriers in the design and construction process,” explains Sarah Bloom, Utility Specialist at the SFPUC. “The stakeholder engagement process conducted in the development of the pilot was also critical in shaping our technical assistance program and the content of the resources and materials for the grant program.”

Applications for the program are awarded based on eligibility criteria.  Projects are designed to deliver specific stormwater management performance and provide enhanced benefits that align with SFPUC policies pertaining to environmental justice, job training and groundwater recharge. In the first two years of the program, five projects have been awarded totaling approximately $4 million of investment of the available $6.4 million in grant funds.  

Bessie Carmichael Middle School (above) is building a series of rain gardens and above ground planters on campus to manage 275,000 gallons of stormwater per year. This will transform the school’s asphalt play space into an educational stormwater schoolyard with rain gardens that will manage approximately 275,000 gallons of stormwater per year.  Construction is expected to be complete in September 2020.

Shown above, St. Thomas More Catholic School is transforming their schoolyard with a combination of rain gardens, permeable pavement, infiltration trenches and a rainwater harvesting system to manage over 780,000 gallons of stormwater each year.

The green infrastructure being constructed at the newly awarded Lycee Francais de San Francisco School (shown above) includes installation of permeable pavement in several locations, rain gardens, and a cistern. This project is anticipated to manage over 383,000 gallons of stormwater each year.

Four of the five projects awarded are located on school sites that will transform their asphalt play space into an educational stormwater schoolyard, with features such as rain gardens, permeable pavement and signage, with all five projects collectively managing nearly 3.1 million gallons of stormwater per year. With two additional projects currently under review, the program is already making a difference in helping protect San Francisco’s combined sewer system while also providing additional community benefits such as community green spaces and increasing biodiversity of our neighborhoods and schoolyards.