“Across the country, infrastructure is deteriorating or not meeting modern standards,” says Meei-Lih Ahmad, Senior Sanitary Engineer at the Southeast Treatment Plant (SEP). “That includes our bridges, freeways, public roads, sewer system, water lines, and wastewater treatment plants.”
“And a lot of San Franciscans may not realize it right now, but right here in the city we are many years into our sewer system upgrade,” she adds.
Ahmad is part of the team that manages the SEP facilities and their nonstop operations. Located in Bayview-Hunters Point, the SEP treats 80% of San Francisco’s wastewater -- which includes sewage from homes and businesses as well as stormwater runoff. Her job is to ensure that the facilities operate efficiently, and comply with city, state, and federal regulations.
On an average workday, her impressive to-do list includes monitoring the treatment process; providing air permit applications; communicating with regulators; and submitting compliance documents. She also takes advantage of every opportunity to inspect both new and old wastewater infrastructure such as process tanks and channels, digesters, and submerged outfall pipes.
Crucial Part of the Sewer System Improvement Team
Several years ago, the SFPUC began renovating the treatment plant—replacing outdated equipment and upgrading structures to make them resilient to earthquakes. In addition, the renovations include innovations to improve processes, reuse byproducts, and reduce odors in the neighborhood. Ahmad has been working closely with the SSIP teams to ensure things go smoothly.
The multi-billion-dollar projects at the SEP are part of the Sewer System Improvement Program (SSIP) to upgrade San Francisco’s over a hundred-year-old combined sewer system.
“As we upgrade our aging infrastructure, we are also applying new technologies. We are reusing water, recovering nutrients, and producing energy,” says Ahmad.
The SSIP is a decades-long undertaking. It includes over 70 seventy projects and involves thousands of construction crew members, with over 1.5 million work hours completed so far.
Close coordination is needed to avoid complications between operations and construction teams. Ahmad participates in numerous meetings to keep up with day-to-day construction activities. She asks questions to understand how construction might affect regulatory obligations. Her coordination on multiple crucial projects at the SEP and due diligence allows the treatment plant to remain active, operate efficiently, and safeguard public health and the environment.
Lifelong Dedication to Infrastructure
Ahmad has been with the SFPUC Wastewater Enterprise since 1987, after graduating with a master’s degree from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Born in Taiwan, she saw rapid growth in her country during the 1970s. She remembers 10 major national infrastructure projects that created key utilities for the country, such as power, water, and sewer facilities. “That was the time I started connecting infrastructure with real life,” she recalls.
Early on in school, she liked math and chemistry and by middle school, she knew she wanted to be an engineer. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from the National Taiwan University before moving to the United States. Ahmad has become vital at the SFPUC, bridging the teams who operate and maintain the SEP with the project and construction management teams responsible for upgrading old and building new facilities.
“It’s rewarding to participate in operating the most crucial treatment plant in San Francisco,” says Ahmad. “And it’s also fun to go through the whole planning, design, construction, and startup process of new facilities that will take us into the next generation.”
Ahmad feels it is important for residents to be informed and involved. She wishes people who live and work in the city understood the state of its aging infrastructure. She looks forward to when the SEP public tours, which are on hiatus during construction, can resume. “For our safety, security, economy, and future, residents should learn about our infrastructure so they can participate in the decision-making process for capital improvements and funding.”