I Adopted an SF Storm Drain During the Bay Area Bomb Cyclone

My non-binary, steel-clad child, Big Drain Energy, managed to divert flood waters away from nearby businesses and homes.

“It’s really not that bad, right now,” my new neighbor tells me on the corner of Mason and Bush streets. Her massive German Shepherd mutt is licking my knee; I had slipped on a metal grate moving a large fake fiddle leaf fig up Larkin Street earlier in the afternoon.

Clasped in one hand is a Diet Coke. The other holds a leftover spackling brush from painting and a small plastic bag procured from a nearby bodega.

“Yea, it’s not too bad — maybe it’s the lull before it gets rough,” I say (in what later turned out to be a fit of pontification). “Here’s hoping that my newly adopted storm drain will help steer that rainwater to a place that can actually hold it.”

Seeing the can of my aspartame-sweetened soda dew with both condensation and drizzle, I convivially say I need to attend to the Nob Hill storm drain I recently proclaimed to protect against the natural elements. And human-made trash.

There are over 25,000 stormwater inlets, drains, and catch basins in the City and County of San Francisco, according to the San Francisco Water Power Sewer. Of these, the vast majority — 23,721 of them, in fact — are “stormwater inlet drains” with grates, which we commonly see at the corner of city streets, and “catch basins”; the latter type is less common, larger, and has wider grates to allow increased water flow. 

And yes, reader: You can adopt a San Francisco storm drain… just like I did hours before the most recent bomb cyclone made landfall in the SF Bay Area.

With Adopt a Drain SF, San Francisco residents can volunteer to help keep the City’s 25,000 storm drains and catch basins free of litter and leaves, thus preventing these materials from entering the local sewer system.

The program, which is sponsored, managed, and organized by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), was launched in 2016 as an initiative to help the City maintain its latticework of rain relief drains. 

According to the program’s website, Code for San Francisco — a non-profit volunteer group and the local chapter of Code for America — used public data to develop a digital application that showed users where drain locations were close to them and which ones were adoptable.

Per landing page copy, SF’s adopt a drain program is an iteration of one by Boston’s Adopt a Hydrant Program; much like the east coast initiative, the SF’s volunteer-supported storm drain clearing program has since garnered media attention — many of those eyes and clicks drawn toward it by way of a once-in-a-hundred-year atmospheric anomaly, mind you.

As of January 6th, nearly 5,000 storm drains and basins — 4,977, to be exact — in San Francisco have been adopted through the program.

I became one of those previously mentioned guardians after officially adopting my personified child at the corner of Powell and Bush streets.

The clouded sun was beginning to dip below the city skyline rimming Nob Hill. With my huaraches hovering over what ostensibly looked like a quite clear storm drain, I began removing bits of synthetic and organic material obstructing my drain’s mission, purpose, and being on this mortal coil. “Big Drain Energy,” as I affectionately named them in a fit of loneliness while thumbing through Grindr, had been lost to time. But in a neighborhood that consistently remains relatively trash-free. 

(Unlike, say, the Tenderloin and Lower Nob Hill, trash is strung out on the street in all directions along this stretch of downtown; the storm drains I’ve seen in those areas clog with the detritus of humankind.)

I quickly loaded my black plastic bag with leaves, wrappers, and other small pieces of trash. What I wasn’t initially prepared for was the years of coagulated grime clinging to the space between the grates. It felt mushy and solid. It would give way to my pinches through a second plastic bag I acquired from another nearby corner store. The putty knife proved to be the utmost help in getting quite a lot of it off.

I can only imagine what I was collecting; my teenage job at a Chick-fil-A in Flower Mound, Texas afforded me the experience of prying off congealed lard from pressure fryers; at 31 years old, I briefly revisited that end-of-day cleaning task my fifteen-year-old self performed countless times.

“You look good, my dear,” I said out loud to an audience of no one. In a fit of unexpected coincidence, properly disposing of the collected trash presented itself with another glaring City problem: a lack of public trash cans. The nearest garbage receptacle was two blocks away… and was only one of three in a 1/8th mile radius…. in one of the most residentially-packed parts of San Francisco.

The green-painted trash can swallowed my collected mess, and I set an alarm for every two hours until midnight to check up on BDE as the storm’s presence grew. Those post-first-clean-up check-ins proved mildly uneventful. It appeared that the initial removal of trash allowed water to travel more freely into its iron-clad maw. There was the occasional oversized piece of paper or take-out container lid or single-use plastic bottle to remove.

In the morning, I again hovered over BDE. The night had been kind to them; a piece of wax paper was all that obstructed its otherwise litter-free mouth.

It’s unclear yet how BDE will fare with the next series of storms expected to inundate the Bay Area this weekend and into next week. Regardless: I’ll be there, tending over its grates — slivers of iron seasoned by time — and removing any garbage that finds its way onto them.  And, of course, walking the few city blocks to dispose of it.

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