Transforming San Francisco Stormwater Resiliency One Parcel at a Time

When heavy rains hit San Francisco, how does the City alleviate the burden on the combined sewer system and protect the health and safety of the public and environment? Through landscapes and systems that soak up the rainwater, protect the surrounding waterways and beautify the environment. Green infrastructure is a set of highly engineered systems that use the power of nature to capture and infiltrate stormwater. More green infrastructure continues to be installed throughout San Francisco due to the dedication of SFPUC staff that are responsible for implementing the Stormwater Management Ordinance (SMO).

Launched in 2010, the SMO helps protect San Francisco’s surrounding waterways and supports the Combined Sewer System (CSS) by requiring new development in the City to incorporate green infrastructure (e.g. rain gardens, permeable pavement, rainwater harvesting) that manages stormwater onsite.

The program is run by a small and mighty group of staff who have built the program from the ground up.

”I am proud of our team and personally driven by knowing that we play a unique part in building resiliency into the City’s infrastructure. We have found that the key to successful green infrastructure is understanding how each feature interacts with the natural environment, built infrastructure, and City systems. Each owner and property are unique, and therefore requires a city approvals process that embraces a holistic approach,” says Ken Kortkamp, SMO Program Manager at the SFPUC.

In March of 2020, the SMO team began to operate in a fully remote work environment due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shelter-in-place orders. The team quickly adapted, transitioning all their functions online, from meetings with developers, to permitting processes, and most importantly, to a digital Stormwater Control Plan review process.

“What typically would take months of coordination was accomplished by the team in a few weeks following the start of Shelter-In-Place,” said Kortkamp.

The change to working fully remote and reviewing project scopes did not slow the team down. In fact, 2020 was one of the busiest years on record for the team. They reviewed 19 additional green infrastructure projects compared to the year before.

The team chalks up their success in part to how closely they work with the development teams of the projects to ensure they are maximizing the benefits out of the green infrastructure they are building.

“Each plan is like a puzzle. We figure out what they are proposing and how we can help guide them toward a stormwater management solution that will be as simple, functional, and beautiful as possible.” – Katie Pilat, Stormwater Plan Reviewer at the SFPUC.

One example of this multi-beneficial design can be seen at the 400-block of Natoma Street in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood. Constructed as part of the redevelopment of the Chronicle Building, the project will include a 50,000-gallon cistern, a vegetated roof, planters, and an expansive landscaping area within the adjacent park space. Together, these projects will manage nearly 550,000 gallons of stormwater each year, equivalent to drawing approximately 18,000 baths.

Another exciting project is the new Southeast Community Center construction at 1550 Evans Street in the Bayview Hunters Point community. The SFPUC is collaborating with San Francisco Public Works to create simple, cost-effective stormwater systems, with educational features for future generations.

Managing 220+ Million Gallons of Stormwater Each Year

This program is making big change in the resiliency of San Francisco’s urban landscape, one project at a time. The nearly 350 projects that have complied with the Stormwater Management Ordinance since its launch are collectively managing more than 220 million gallons of stormwater each year. For scale, that much stormwater could fill up an Olympic size swimming pool 330 times!

As we experience the increasing severity of climate change, the SFPUC team continues to be motivated by the impact their work is having and are ready for even more projects as the need for more green infrastructure will only increase.

“What motivates me to do this work is knowing that we are making a lasting difference throughout the city by transforming it one parcel at a time.” says Andrew Corrales, intern with the SMO team at the SFPUC.