San Francisco's out-of-town shit

I was doing more background research for our water oligarch doc, trying to see how much water is diverted from various rivers in California. And I got diverted myself to a slightly related topic. It didn’t have much to do with diversions from rivers — unless you consider a sewer pipe to be a kind of “river” and the shit that’s fished out of it as kind of “diversion.”

They say you can tell a lot by looking at the trash a society produces. And I guess that’s true of its sewage, too. For example: I found myself looking at an annual report put out by the San Francisco public utilities commission — which, among other things, deals with processing and disposing of the city’s sewage — and I found a funny stat. Turns out that San Francisco produced a lot less shit in 2020 than it did the year before — about 20 percent less shit, to be exact. That’s a huge drop.

Why? The pandemic. No one came to San Francisco for a year — all the commuting office workers and the hordes of tourists that usually swarm the city stayed put and emptied their bowels at home. And that meant San Francisco’s had to work less hard to process and compact this out-of-town shit into sludge — or “biosolids,” as the waste management industry likes to call it. I bet all major cities have had a similar reduction in sewage volume, while suburbs and smaller cities have major boost. It isn’t just that people have been staying put in their homes, their shit has been staying put with them!

Like most cities, San Francisco has to import everything it needs from the outside: food, water, building materials, just about anything that people consume. It exports — well besides dubious cultural and intellectual products, it exports a whole lot of physical waste. And by export, I mean that literally: San Francisco trucks out its sludge out of the city and dumps it on farms in several different counties — including, I believe, Sacramento and Solano. But I guess that’s the reality for pretty much any major urban zone in the world. You pump in the nutrients and pump out the excrement.

So yeah every city and suburb in California does this, as does Los Angeles — which produces more shit than any other city in California…and then dumps it on a poor county way to the north of it.

As I noted years and years ago, when I still lived in Venice Beach:

Well, if you are one of the 3.9 million people who live and relieve yourself in Los Angeles, you might be interested to learn that your turds are given special treatment: they’re loaded onto trucks, taken on a scenic 2.5-hour drive to a different county, and dumped on a poor hick town.

You can’t make this up, folks: Every day, Los Angeles takes 500 tons of moist, highly toxic fecal matter produced by its Obama-worshipping coastal elite and ships it 125 miles up north to GOP-dominated Kern County, where it is spread around on a small chunk of land near the town of Taft, population 6,400. It does this every single day, day after day, piling on somewhere around 200,000 tons of excrement in one year. There’s nothing covert about the practice. Everyone knows LA is doing this. In fact, the city bought the land in 2000 for about $10 million just for this reason: so that it could have somewhere to dump its feces.

Los Angeles likes to think of this little chunk of Kern County real estate not as an open air septic tank, but as a seven-square-mile slice of agricultural heaven called “Green Acres Farm.” According to the official description, which you can find on a happy, bright green website run by LA Sanitation, Green Acres is a commercial farm owned by the city that engages in the “beneficial reuse” of “biosolids” as a “soil conditioner and fertilizer to help promote growth on sites where chemical fertilizers would otherwise have to be used to produce crops.”

I visited this Green Acres Farm years ago. It’s a massive field way out in the middle of nowhere swarmed by billions of flies and it’s constantly receiving truckloads of processed LA shit, which is used to grow alfalfa that is then fed to sad and abused cows that are penned into smelly industrial dairies all over the Central Valley.

In theory I guess it’s good to recycle the human waste and to put it back into natural circulation. Problem is that it isn’t just human waste that’s flushed down the toilet: toxic metals, industrial solvents, antibiotics, various chemicals, including every pharmaceutical substance known to man ends up there, as well. Pouring things down the drain is the easiest way to get rid of chemicals and there’s no way to track it to its source…so all sorts of bad stuff ends up in the pipes. Studies have even found radioactive matter being flushed down the hole. When you apply this stuff on a huge scale on land out in the open…all this fecal matter and the toxins go airborne and various pathogens and fungi living in it do, too. You better hope you don’t live within miles of a place like this because it can get gnarly. If you start reading up on the subject, you’ll come across horrific stories of people who live close to sludge processing plants contracting exotic fungal infections that eat up their lungs and spread throughout their bodies. There was one case of sludge killing off entire herd of cows because of the high amounts of rat poison that it contained.

When I lived out in Victorville, there was a sludge composting plant that had been built a little earlier in a neighboring town, but it had to be shut down after only three years of operation after residents suffered persistent, acute health problems. Swarms of flies covered everything around it and locals came down with ear, nose and throat infections. At a nearby school, children started to vomit and suffered from nausea, and developed nose bleeds and recurring headaches. Fun stuff!

I’m not sure if the places San Francisco dumps its sludge have similar problems, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Some years back, the city the city was caught giving out toxic sludge laced with flame retardant, PCBs, antibiotics, and other chemicals as “organic compost” to local schools and hobby farmers. Go Green SF!

But I guess there’s nothing to be surprised at here. This is what our late industrial civilization is good at: producing poisons and spreading them around.

It’s hard to imagine a different human waste recycling setup these days. But it wasn’t always like this everywhere. Low Tech Magazine ran an amazing article a while back on the forgotten history of how in Vietnam cities used fish ponds to process and reuse their sewage locally in an ingenious pre-industrial way, getting rid of waste and growing food at the same time — although this system has also been mostly wiped out by urban development.

Anyway…this is what happens every time I scratch the surface of water politics here in California. I immediately hit shit.

—Yasha Levine

Want to know more? I wrote about LA’s shit politics in the “Green Acres” section of my Oligarch Valley tour of Southern California. And a bit here, too.