Interview: Lisa Dunseth on the Campaign for an Equitable Emergency Firefighting Water System

San Francisco's Emergency Firefighting Water System does not cover the city's outer neighborhoods.

In July 2019, a Civil Grand Jury report revealed that San Francisco’s Emergency Firefighting Water System, also called the Auxiliary Water Supply System, does not cover the western and southern reaches of the city leaving entire neighborhoods vulnerable when the next big earthquake strikes. In November, the Board of Supervisors passed legislation to create an expansion plan to expand the EFWS to all corners of the city within 15 years. However, some residents don’t think it’s enough. The Light interviewed Lisa Dunseth, a Mission Terrace resident, who’s advocating for the expansion of the EFWS. What follows is a lightly edited Q. and A.

When did you find out that the outer neighborhoods are not covered by the EFWS? And what did you think?

In July, I read Tom Pendergast’s article in The Richmond ReView and soon after a CBS news article. These led me to the actual Civil Grand Jury Report. I was appalled by what I learned. But honestly not too surprised since it is just one more example of the city neglecting its infrastructure. I immediately reached out to District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai who seemed unaware about the seriousness of the situation.

What will you do with your petition?

We hope it will help create a general awareness of this situation because most people have never heard of the AWSS. The “Auxiliary Water Supply System” is a separate, independent pipeline and hydrant system that uses non-potable water. The system was conceived of and designed in response to the disaster of 1906. So there is a great need to educate and inform people first. Everyone who lives or works in the southern neighborhoods would sign the petition if they knew about it and understood the situation. This is also an equity issue, needless to say. It is another example of the parts of town with less money getting fewer protections and services. We are determined to get the word out in any way we can think of.

What has City Hall’s reaction been so far?

District Four Supervisor Gordon Mar and several other supervisors presented a resolution for a “State of Urgency” to expand the EFWS at the Nov. 8, 2019 Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee meeting. It went on to the Board of Supervisors and was approved. But it is not nearly strong enough. (What exactly is a “State of Urgency” anyway?)

What has the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s response been?

The usual boilerplate. Their presentation before the supervisors points to how they plan to spend monies from both ratepayers and, more importantly, the $628.5 million Earthquake Safety and Emergency Response bond, which will go before voters in March 2020. When the SFPUC talks about these monies, they do not talk about any specific projects — the bond monies are only discussed in generalities as to how it will be used to pay for “programs.” The EFWS program is supposed receive $154 million from this bond. So far this program plans to use our drinking water from Sunset Reservoir for firefighting and for human needs after an earthquake but this plan is not mentioned in the ESER bond. Instead of using limited purified drinking water, we should be using unlimited saltwater from the ocean to fight conflagrations. The people should be told exactly what the bond will pay for. If not, do you trust them to spend those monies wisely?

What are your plans going forward into the new year and beyond with this effort?

We intend to keep talking about this and reaching out to people.

For more information about the petition, visit www.change.org/p/san-franciscans-for-fire-protection-equity-residents-of-san-francisco-s-western-southern-neighborhoods-deserve-fire-protection-equity.