In separate instances in the spring and summer of 2015, three whales washed onto Pacifica beaches. Three was unusual, but stranded whales here are a regular occurrence. And when a 30-ton carcass lies rotting in the sun on a public beach, something must be done.
Pacifica Public Works Field Services Manager Paul Lavorini describes what happens next. “If it’s stuck, we might go out with heavy machines — our excavator — and clear an area so when high tide comes it will float.” Contractors tow the whale 30 miles out to sea and cut it loose, far enough out that it probably won't end up back on a beach.
This is not a problem of most city public works departments. In Pacifica, it’s just part of the job.
To enlighten city residents about various other responsibilities of the Department of Public Works, the city department opened the gates to its corporation yard on May 18 for an open house. The event was part of a wider National Public Works Week celebration.
On display were enough backhoes, excavators, cherry pickers, dump trucks and paving machines to satisfy the most ardent 3-year-old truck enthusiast. Representatives from the department’s Field Services, Engineering and Wastewater divisions engaged visitors with displays of their work and tools.
Their stories made it clear that operating on the coast adds its own flavor to the job. Salt air, wind, sand, waves, rainstorms, animals and the special circumstance of being a beach town beloved of tourists, all make the job of Pacifica’s Public Works unique.
“In addition to the regular public works tasks that need to happen in any location, we have special challenges being on the coast,” says Lisa Petersen, the department’s director.
At the open house, Glenn Stevens, of the Field Services Division, showed off the equipment he uses to keep sand where it should be — on the beaches, instead of up on the roads, trails and parking lots. “I grew up in New England and I used to remove snow. Now I’m an adult in California and I’m removing sand,” he said.
On a windy day at Linda Mar, he can scoop up 150 cubic yards of sand, or 30 dump truck loads. The wind might deposit 100 yards at Esplanade and “two days later, there’s another windstorm and it’s all back,” says Petersen. Stevens and his co-workers remove sand up to three times a month at these two locations to keep roads and pathways open.
The wind also sandblasts structures, meaning painting and pavement striping need to happen more frequently than it does inland.
As anyone who lives close to the shore knows, salt air leads to rust and corrosion. It’s a huge problem that complicates Pacifica Public Works’ job of maintaining not only infrastructure, but it affects the tools, vehicles and other work equipment needed for the job.
“Pretty much anything that’s metal needs to be stainless steel or it corrodes in no time. High-grade galvanized steel falls apart in five years on the coast,” says Brian Martinez, senior collection system manager. Even aluminum, which is generally considered corrosion-resistant, suffers here in the salt air.
Public Works takes care of all the city’s public buildings, including City Hall, the Community Center, two fire stations, four day care centers, the police station and all the public restrooms. It’s also responsible for maintaining street lights and marking underground utilities when excavation needs to happen.
Streetlights typically last three years in inland parts of the city, but on the beachside they’re replaced yearly, says Rolando Siliezar, of the Building Services division. “In three years you can’t even open them. Everything deteriorates.”
Pacifica catches the first brunt of storms from the ocean, and the wet winter weather creates additional challenges. “The way the rain hits the coast, the cells sit here longer. They come in from the ocean and get held by the mountain. We seem to get more than the average (amount of rain),” says Martinez. Mudslides are a threat in these large storms.
In addition, large rainfall amounts combine with a high water table and leaky sewer pipes to result in the sewer lines carrying more water than they can handle. Excess water leaks into the pipes, leading to floods and an overwhelmed sewage treatment plant.
Leaky pipes are not just a coastal problem, they affect systems nationwide. “But due to being on the coast and storms being more intense, it’s exacerbated,” said Nelson Schlater, senior engineer with the wastewater plant. “We’re embarking on a long-term program to try and reduce the inflow and infiltration, to get it back to being just sewage in the pipes, and not rainwater.”
With winter storms come waves, and with waves, erosion. As sea level rises, this becomes a growing problem in coastal towns. Public Works is involved in long-term planning, through efforts like the Beach Boulevard Infrastructure Resiliency Project. More immediately, it responds to repair needs such as fixing the 25-foot sinkhole that developed in 2020 on Beach Boulevard.
“We did emergency repairs over Christmas,” said Petersen. “There were king tides, and you can’t do repairs when there are waves crashing over you.” They needed to wait for the corresponding low tides to fix it. “When you’re waiting for the point when you can repair it, you need to keep the hole from growing and taking out the whole street,” said Petersen, praising staff and contractors for their dedication.
The pier itself, jutting out into the ocean, receives a constant bashing. Public Works closes it with some regularity for repairs, most recently after some of the railings were taken out by large waves. An assessment determined that all of the railings need replacement, and the city is now looking for grant funding to complete that task. “Any project is a process,” says Petersen. “Getting funding, design, bidding. Nothing happens overnight.”
Public Works is responsible for keeping all the city's parks and beaches clean and safe. During the COVID lockdown, crowds thronged to outdoor sites, complicating the job. Routine maintenance involves bathroom cleaning, trash removal — at the beach, sometimes four or five times a day — and checking for graffiti and vandalism. Public Works staff also write parking tickets and try explaining to people how their off-leash dogs disturb the endangered snowy plovers and other wildlife.
Along with the routine tasks, there are exceptional days when a boat or a dead whale might wash ashore. Public Works assists with removal, sometimes bringing in their backhoes to dig around the stranded boat or animal so it can be towed off the beach.
They bury smaller marine life, such as dead seals, six feet under the sand. Live, stranded seals get a call to the Marine Mammal Center, which sends staff to watch the animals until they return to the water or to pick them up for treatment, as needed.
Staff from the Public Works are “first responders” to such incidents, because they’re routinely out there with eyes on the city’s public spaces. They work closely with other city agencies, including police and the Pacifica Resource Center. They end up taking care of people around the city in the course of their jobs; for example, referring people they find living on city property to the Resource Center for assistance.
Taking care of all this falls to a staff of around 53 people, including the Wastewater Treatment Plant employees. Petersen says this is smaller than in most cities of a similar size, but the workers are nimble.
“We’re very cross-trained,” says Lavorini. “It’s not uncommon for someone to get off a lawnmower and get into a backhoe or drive a 10-wheeler truck to go to the beach to deal with garbage.
“We’re ready for everything,” he says. “We never get bored.”