Low-Flow Toilets Backfiring in San Francisco

Published March 14, 2011

The City of San Francisco’s costly rebate program to induce installation of low-flow toilets is backfiring, with city officials scrambling to combat clogged sewer lines and a horrible stench near important tourist neighborhoods.

Stench in Tourist Districts
The lack of sufficient water flow in the city’s sewer system has caused human waste to gum up the pipes rather than simply washing out according to system design. The odor of human feces has been emanating from underground, with the area near AT&T Park, home of the Major League Baseball San Francisco Giants, being particularly affected.

“There’s nothing like the delightful smell of human waste on a warm summer day,” deadpanned Matt Hickman, writing for the Mother Nature Network.

Rebate Program Induced Problem
A city rebate program offers residents up $200 for the installation of each low-flow toilet.

The city Public Utilities Commission estimates the program has saved 20 million gallons of water per year during the past five years. However, the city has been forced to spend $100 million so far to upgrade its sewer system and sewage plants. Moreover, the city is investing $14 million in bleach to treat city drains.

The new program to douse the city’s system with 8.5 million pounds of bleach, which environmental groups say will make its way into San Francisco Bay, is creating an outcry from the same environmental activist groups that called for the low-flow toilet rebate program in the first place. 

Adam Lowry, chemical engineer and cofounder of Method eco-friendly cleaning products, points out the city had other options. 

“Dumping this volume of bleach into our waterways would be an environmental disaster, and worst of all, it is completely unnecessary,” Lowry wrote on the Method Web site.

City Claims Minimal Problem
City officials argue they can minimize the environmental impact of the bleach treatments, and they dispute claims by environmental advocates that the bleach will make its way into San Francisco Bay.

“Sewage treatment plants utilizing sodium hypochlorite [bleach] for disinfection are specifically designed to remove it after using it,” said Tyrone Jue, director of communications for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. “This means there is no bleach being dumped into the Bay either from sewers or treatment plants.”

The environmental news media, however, are not so certain.

“While I applaud San Francisco’s efforts in looking out for health of both Mother Nature and its residents, this is one instance of the city’s somewhat aggressive tactics backfiring in a big way,” wrote Hickman.

Pamela Gorman ([email protected]) is a former Arizona state senator.