Guest Column | March 7, 2022

Navigating Through Uncharted Waters: How SFPUC's Wastewater Enterprise Stepped In To Help With COVID Monitoring

By Sabrina Suzuki


On February 25, 2020, Mayor London N. Breed declared a local emergency. The legal document put into action the mobilization of City resources, accelerated emergency planning and staffing to prepare in the event that COVID-19 appeared in the community. Following the announcement, with COVID-19 cases rising in San Francisco, in mid-March 2020, shelter-in-place orders went into place, and businesses and schools were shutdown, leaving thousands of City workers deemed as essential workers reporting to work. Ryan Batjiaka, a Resource Recovery Specialist for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) recalls what it was like the first few days after receiving the news.

“Obviously it was a big shock when everything shut down and there was very little understanding of how long this would all last. I first heard about wastewater surveillance from local researchers that were looking for samples in March 2020 to help identify the level of the virus’ presence in the community. It would take many months before we could go from providing samples to having a system up and running where the testing was accurate, and the reporting was streamlined.”

Tim Paez, a Wastewater Control Inspector for the SFPUC’s Wastewater Enterprise Collections System Division is one of the many essential workers who reported to work since the beginning of the pandemic. He recalls he was at his computer, reading about how other water/wastewater utilities around the world — in Israel, Japan, and Denmark — were starting to embark on wastewater surveillance for public health. He remembers reading articles about it when he saw an email come in from Batjiaka, who was trying to gauge interest in starting similar studies in San Francisco.

Paez said he knew he had to speak up, as he didn’t want to miss the opportunity of a lifetime to be part of this first-of-its-kind research already knowing his team had the capability to do the work and had what they needed to successfully support the effort.

“I approached my manager with a short proposal on how we could do it with the existing staffing and resources that we had,” said Paez. “As a field supervisor, I also kept in mind that we still had existing commitments (i.e., complying with regulatory requirements) that couldn’t stop, even during the pandemic. I was grateful — given all the new Covid-related guidelines that had an impact on staffing, like alternating schedules, our staff’s deployment as Disaster Service Workers, and evolving safety protocols — that my manager supported me and the team in being part of the project.”

Collaboration & Teamwork Steer The Way

There were a number of moving pieces and stakeholders that all came together to make this project a success. From working with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) on Muni overhead lines nearby wastewater sample collection sites, to understanding the wastewater flow at those sites, working with SFPUC Wastewater Engineers, to finding the most optimum collection location based on the network of sewer pipes, Paez says it was a heavy lift. The team had to ensure the samples were appropriately collected, with quality control of the utmost importance and says the research would have never gotten off the ground if it wasn’t for one person.

“I give credit to Ryan for setting the tone on how key this research is, and importantly, for making sure the researchers and the wastewater sample collection team were on the same page and collaborated on it,” explained Paez. “We made sure it wasn’t a siloed approach, and everyone who came to the table made it a collaborative process. Every part of the project had quality control metrics, which was so important. His approach to bringing all the stakeholders together — making it a team effort — was effective in getting the work done in a timely manner.”

Read Part Two.

The SFPUC’s Wastewater Enterprise has made many contributions during the pandemic from advancing Covid research as well as helping the City at large during the pandemic. From sampling of wastewater at convalescent homes to learning about the spread of the virus, to being Disaster Service Workers to deliver food to the under-served, stay tuned as we share “Navigating Through Uncharted Waters,” a series dedicated on highlighting the contributions of SFPUC’s wastewater workers.