I adopted and named 8 San Francisco storm drains to help fight flooding

I adopted and named 8 San Francisco storm drains to help fight flooding

  • Bobak Esfandiari took over eight drains as part of San Francisco’s Adopt-a-Drain program.
  • Volunteers, or “drain fathers” as the local newspaper calls them, clean drains to prevent flooding.
  • This is the story of Esfandiari fulfilling his “bite-sized” civic duty as told to reporter Morgan McFall-Johnsen.

This essay is based on an interview with Bobak Esfandiari, who cleans eight of San Francisco’s 5,990 inherited manholes. It has been edited for length and clarity.

San Francisco experienced record rainfall and flooding, which means I’ve been busy cleaning out my eight adopted storm drains on the streets around my building.

The town’s Adopt-a-Drain program has become very popular over the past week, possibly thanks to that of my friends viral twitter thread about all the funny names people give their drains. But I’ve been cleaning my adopted drains since the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission started the program in 2016.

I heard about it when a friend was running for public office, and she shared news with neighbors about opportunities to get involved in communities. She was posting on Nextdoor about this Adopt-a-Drain stuff and I was like, “Oh! Cool! OK, I can.”

It’s a small bite-sized thing. It doesn’t save the world, but it makes a small contribution.

The call to action was pretty simple: help San Francisco prepare for rain and help keep your neighborhood’s storm drains clean. That way, the SFPUC workers — the people who drive those big vacuum trucks around — can focus on the big things, and we can all do our little bit to help stop flooding.

I like doing community cleanups, so I thought that was cool. I complained about a few drains and a few months later I complained more because I always saw them when I did my rounds anyway.

In all I am responsible for eight storm drains around my building in Outer Richmond.

You can name your drain, and some people have embraced puns like “It’s Draining Men.”

Cars drive through flooded water on the San Francisco Interstate at night

Motorists fall into standing water on Interstate 101 in San Francisco, California, after torrential rain January 4, 2023.

Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

It’s simple: you go to the surface; They claim a drain or two; You give them a name.

I’m a very big volunteer in the YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) movement here in San Francisco, so I’ve given all my drains names like Build More Homes! and “Streamline Permitting!”

But many people have embraced puns when naming their storm drains over the past week, like ‘It’s Draining Men’ and ‘Drain ‘The Rock’ Johnson.

Once you’ve claimed your drain, it’s just the system of honor. They don’t come out and slap your knuckles if you don’t do anything. But the expectation is that you’ll try to clear your drains ahead of major storm systems.

It’s pretty darn easy, for the record.

I take a few minutes to check my drains before a storm hits

gloved suspension points on plastic bottle rubbish covering storm drains

One of Esfandiari’s gullies with plastic waste and a car parked above it.

Bobak Esfandiari

The SFPUC tends to churn out emails to the folks who sign up in advance and say a storm system will arrive on that date if you can take the time to clear your drains or check them before that time . They don’t want you to do it in the middle of a storm. You don’t want people to take unnecessary risks.

They gave us many tips: clear the sidewalk of the drains; don’t stand on the street. Don’t use your hands; Wear gloves.

I’ve cleared my drains about four or five times since those storms started on New Year’s Eve.

When it’s time to check them out, I put on a sweater and pants, my boots, and a neon vest that says “Adopt a Drain” that SFPUC gave me when they invited some volunteers to tour the treatment plant in 2017.

I usually use a plastic bag for consumer waste and a paper bag for biodegradable waste.

Then I just start with the drain in front of my building and go in circles. I just rake up anything that’s about 10 feet on either side of the drain.

The only drains I can’t get to are where people park over them. You just have to work around people’s cars.

I then remove my gloves and toss the bags of debris into the compost bin and trash bin of my building.

All in all, it usually takes half an hour or less.

Most of the time it’s vegetation clogging the drains, but I also found Safeway junk and a pesky golf ball

Gully stuff is 90% leaves and twigs.

It takes me a full five minutes to remove all those branches and then I just toss the organic waste in the compost.

I live near a Safeway grocery store and this Safeway generates a lot of garbage. I have a grab that I use to pick up trash and it really shows how much plastic waste we create. For one reason or another it is carelessly tossed aside and ends up in our storm drains and unfortunately can cause flooding.

Storm drain grate with a golf ball in the slot

One of Esfandiari’s gullies with a golf ball stuck in the grate.

Bobak Esfandiari

Some things get stuck in the bars that you can’t remove and that you have to call the city. And the one they’re clearly deprioritizing — it’s a low priority, but I’ve reported it a few times now — is a golf ball stuck perfectly in the grate of one of my drains.

I can’t push it away. I tried to get a stick and push it out but it just won’t budge. How did it happen? Who put a golf ball in there?

Storm drain grate with a golf ball in the slot

The golf ball is one of the strangest things Esfandiari has found.

Bobak Esfandiari

People say thank you and the local paper called us “drain fathers”

When people see me cleaning the drains, any reaction is very healing. Usually people say, “Thank you very much” or “Oh, what are you doing here?”

The SF Chronicle called me and my co-workers “drain dads,” which I found a bit odd.

A bunch of my friends saw this latest viral craze and they all went and adopted drains and now they’re taking care of them too. They ask me for tips and I’m like, ah, it’s not that hard. They pick the leaves from the gutter and wear gloves.

It’s just a small way to be a volunteer and be part of my community and make sure just a little bit is done to keep our town clean and safe.

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