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Joe Montana among San Francisco residents threatening to sue city over sewage-damaged homes

Marina Boulevard experienced severe flooding in October 2021.
Marina Boulevard experienced severe flooding in October 2021. | Source: Courtesy San Francisco Fire Department

A high-profile group of Marina residents have filed claims against the City of San Francisco after winter storms flooded their properties and nearby streets with sewage, wastewater and rainwater. The boldface names behind the claims include 49ers legend Joe Montana and real estate mogul Victor Makras

The flooding came after atmospheric rivers battered San Francisco with unusually high rainfall through the end of 2022 and early 2023. At least 58 residents, all living on Marina Boulevard between Webster and Baker streets, have signed on to the claims. That stretch of roadway, along the bay waterfront by Marina Green, was closed around New Year’s due to flooding. 

Residents on Marina Boulevard say the storm and subsequent flooding were unlike anything they had seen before. It was the second major flood to hit the boulevard in recent years: An October 2021 storm resulted in 4.5 million gallons of untreated wastewater flooding, while the storm on Dec. 31 caused 18.6 million gallons of water to flood the area, according to a letter to the city from the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Millions of more gallons flowed straight into the bay “without authorization” on both occasions, according to the water quality board. 

“The water wasn’t clean—it wasn’t just rainwater,” said Seth Gersch, who has lived with his wife on Marina Boulevard for six years. Gersch said the couple was forced to rip up the carpet on their first floor because of the water. 

Joni Settlemier, a 40-year resident of the Marina, said because her driveway slopes downward, it is particularly vulnerable to flooding. 

“We really got a lot of water in it, up to our knees,” Settlemier said. “Supposedly there was sewer water, so we just felt that for safety, you just have to get rid of everything. I had some things I was keeping—furniture for my family—that got destroyed.” 

When Joe Montana was approached for comment, he told a reporter that he was on a conference call and unable to talk.

Joe Montana makes an appearance in New York on April 10, 2018. | Source: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

The claims allege the flooding was not only the result of a freak weather incident; claimants say San Francisco’s sewage infrastructure was insufficient and the city is to blame for damage to their properties. 

“For many years, the city has had actual and constructive knowledge that the sewage and storm drainage system in and around the [Marina Boulevard area] cannot sufficiently handle anticipated conditions and rain events,” said the claim, which was filed in June.

The residents are represented by prominent San Francisco attorneys, including Khaldoun Baghdadi, former head of the city’s Human Rights Commission. Baghdadi said residents filed the claims—which are often a precursor to a lawsuit—to put themselves “back where they were” financially before the flooding. 

“We don't only trust the city to maintain the sewage infrastructure, but we pay it for doing so,” Baghdadi said. “When the city makes the decisions that cause raw sewage to flood homes, it is responsible for compensating residents.” 

Dozens of residents on Marina Boulevard are suing the city for flooding caused by severe winter storms. | Source: Liz Lindqwister/The Standard

The city said its infrastructure was not to blame.

“The intensity and duration of the storm that hit the city on December 31, 2022, was almost unprecedented. It was the strongest storm to hit San Francisco in more than 170 years,” Jen Kwart, a spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office, said in an email. “The storm, and not the city’s infrastructure, was responsible for widespread flooding throughout the city.” 

Kwart said the city is reviewing the claims raised by the residents and recently sent letters to claimants seeking more information about the alleged damages and their cause. 

Both the Department of Public Works and the Public Utilities Commission declined to comment on the claims directly, noting their agencies cannot speak about ongoing legal matters. 

Extreme Rainfall, Smelly Water

Over a 10-day period around New Year’s Eve, San Francisco was slammed with about 50% of its average annual rainfall. The storms flooded several parts of the city, but hit northern neighborhoods especially hard.

Though some San Franciscans took to street-surfing and paddling around waterlogged roadways, public health officials warned the floodwater could contain raw sewage, animal waste and harmful bacteria

A Marina Boulevard resident documented the grime left behind by knee-high flooding that damaged her home on Dec. 31, 2022. | Source: Courtesy Joni Settlemier

“By design, our sewer system avoids discharging raw, untreated sewage and stormwater into the bay or ocean in small and medium-sized storms,” Joseph Sweiss, a Public Utilities Commission spokesperson, told The Standard in January. “It’s only during large storms, like those we’ve experienced back-to-back these past two weeks, that the city’s system discharges untreated stormwater and small amounts of wastewater.”

One of the claimants’ concerns surrounds the city’s unique “combined” sewer system, which treats wastewater and stormwater in the same network of pipes. Sweiss said in a combined system, the water flows through much larger pipes, meaning the system is not prone to clogging and flooding, contrary to claimants’ arguments. 

Yet residents along Marina Boulevard allege the floodwater caused toxic contamination and structural damage to their properties—many of which are posh homes dotted along the shoreline. 

Gersch told The Standard the elevator in his home filled with water twice, first during the 2021 flooding incident and then on New Year’s Eve. It damaged the wiring on the elevator, while mold remediation efforts in the waterlogged basement cost the couple more than $5,000. 

Other residents along Marina Boulevard took to placing sandbags around their properties. Though summertime is in full swing and few rainstorms have hit San Francisco recently, a number of homes on the street still have sandbags propped up against their garages. 

Some residents on Marina Boulevard have left sandbags by their garage doors to prevent future flooding. | Source: Liz Lindqwister/The Standard

Is the Sewage System To Blame?

The claimants allege the city’s aging infrastructure caused the flooding and, by extension, their property damage. They contend the city has failed to properly maintain and upgrade its sewer and storm diversion systems as climate change brings increasingly severe weather. 

“During this time, the city permitted additional development, including construction of impervious driveways, additional rain gutters and collection pipes that all increased rain, contaminated water and sewage discharge into the system,” the claims further alleged. 

The utilities commission has defended the city’s infrastructure and shot back at claims that the combined sewer system model caused excess flooding or had failed to operate as it was designed. 

“No sewer system can reasonably manage the intensity and duration of an extreme storm like we saw on New Year’s Eve, which nearly set a record for the amount of rain,” Sweiss said in January. “Flooding isn’t caused simply by our combined sewer system. Rather, it’s the amount of rain, its intensity and its duration that can cause floods.” 

The claims also focus on the closure of the Pierce Street Outfall, a combined sewer discharge outfall that allows overflow from the Marina to flow directly into the bay. It was closed in May 2021, though two other outfalls remain close to the Marina’s shoreline.

A public utilities employee exits the Pierce Outfall Tunnel. | Source: Sabrina Wong/SFPUC

“San Francisco decommissioned the Pierce Street outfall because it was in poor condition and had one of the lowest weir elevations,” said the regional water board in a letter to the city, in reference to a low-lying barrier that reduces water flow. “San Francisco chose to decommission the outfall, rather than rehabilitate it, based on the extent of structural work needed for rehabilitation and the complexity of installing necessary backflow prevention.” 

City engineers indicated that the outfall’s closure could increase flooding between 2 and 4 inches during heavy rainfall, though their research did not estimate the extent of where the flooding would hit. 

In light of the Pierce outfall closure and the two bouts of heavy flooding, the water board issued a notice in July asking the city to address flooding and infrastructure issues along Marina Boulevard. It laid down no fewer than 11 requirements for the city to fulfill by October 2023 and February 2024, including retesting rainfall simulations along the north shore and evaluating how climate change affects flooding and discharge incidents. 

An Ongoing, Citywide Infrastructure Issue

The Marina isn’t the only San Francisco neighborhood affected by flooding and infrastructure issues. 

During the worst of the winter storms, knee-high water flooded portions of the Mission. Mission Terrace, in particular, has long struggled with destructive floods that residents attribute to aging infrastructure. A 2008 lawsuit also found the city liable for a flooding incident along Cayuga Avenue that damaged properties. 

“The city knows there are problems that it’s tried to address, but they have preferred up to a point to pay damages than to pay for fixes,” said David Hooper, an organizer with Solutions Not Sandbags

Members of the Department of Public Works unpack sandbags to distribute to the public at 2323 Cesar Chavez in San Francisco on January 4, 2023.
Members of the Department of Public Works unpack sandbags to distribute to the public at 2323 Cesar Chavez in San Francisco on January 4, 2023. | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

Nearly six months after the New Year’s Eve flood, the city announced plans to pump millions of dollars into water infrastructure improvements, in a joint effort by Mayor London Breed, the Environmental Protection Agency and the city’s utilities commission. A $369 million loan will go to SF Public Utilities Commission to improve “wastewater resiliency” at a dozen locations across the city, particularly in the face of increasingly unpredictable weather.

None of the initial improvement plans are slated for the Marina, however, and a utilities spokesperson said the infrastructure loan is not related to the claims or flooding in the Marina. The nearest infrastructure improvement plan is for a treatment plant located near Fisherman’s Wharf. 

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Marina residents had filed a lawsuit. The residents have filed claims with the city, which can be a precursor to a lawsuit.