Native daughter Elizabeth Heidhues. Leader in the San Francisco Drain crew.

Lee Heidhues 11.23.2021

My lifelong partner Liz Heidhues. Fighter for Justice, a car free Golden Gate Park and The Great Walkway is also a dedicated steward of the environment.

Liz was an early volunteer in San Francisco’s Adopt a Drain program. Come rain or shine, Liz has been maintaining the drain.

Liz is a stellar citizen and an asset to San Francisco.

Excerpted from SF Gate 11.23.2021 – Tessa McLean

Most San Franciscans pass at least a few neighborhood storm drains every day. But only a few residents probably realize they may have been rudely walking by, not acknowledging the drains by name.

Yes, the iron grate on your corner may not just be an anonymous piece of infrastructure. It might be named Yoda, in honor of the Jedi of course, or it might be dubbed “It’s Draining Men,” forcing the catchy tune into your head. It could pay homage to a popular actor by way of the nickname “Drain the Rock Johnson” or it may anthropomorphize the utility with a moniker like “Big Thirsty.” It might even be called “The Best Storm Drain in SF,” though no one is running a contest.

Outer Richmond resident Elizabeth Heidhues named hers after her sister Donna, who lives in Montana. They don’t get to see each other all that much, but Heidhues thinks of her every day when she passes by the storm drain at the end of her street. She also loves the play on words it creates, especially with her Italian side of the family. “I named it Donna after her because everything goes ‘DOWN-A’ the drain. It’s a spoof on Italian English.”

While most people may not love being associated with wastewater and sewage, Donna the person thinks it’s funny. She’s from San Francisco, passionate about the environment and she jokes she’s famous among her friends in Montana for it.

Heidhues has been caring for Donna the drain since 2017 (following photo), as soon as she saw the Adopt a Drain program advertised on a San Francisco Public Utilities Commission calendar she picked up from a local store. As a runner and a cyclist without a car, she said she was always encountering flooded intersections, so her motivation to adopt the drain was to keep her intersection from becoming flooded. She looked online and saw the drain on her corner was available, and she’s been caring for it ever since.

Liz Heidhues with her newly adopted Drain – January 2017

“You feel very close to your drain. You’ve named it, you feel responsible for its well-being and you feel guilty if it doesn’t behave itself because you’ve neglected it,” Heidhues said with a laugh. “It’s like being a parent almost.”

Obviously it’s not as much maintenance as a child or a pet, although she said she does clean it thoroughly once a month. Most of the time, the drain becomes obstructed with leaves, weeds, sand, cigarette butts and rocks, but every once in a while Heidhues finds something out of the ordinary. She’s found kid’s toys and plenty of masks and gloves.

Once, she said she found a BCBG dress in her size in a plastic bag that she dry-cleaned and kept and eventually wore on her birthday.

Since she adopted Donna, she’s even motivated a few of her neighbors to adopt drains, and they keep each other motivated to keep them free of debris. It’s a great way to stay involved in the community and the upkeep of the neighborhood, Heidhues said.

SFPUC gives out initial supplies to aid in the cleaning process, which is how Heidhues got her safety vest with “volunteer” in big letters across the back. She said she loves when people honk their horns and say thank you as they drive by when she’s cleaning. But she wishes she could convince even more people to join the program.

Donna the Drain II November 2021.jpg
Liz at work November 2021

The initiative was created because the city crews just couldn’t keep up with the maintenance of the more than 25,000 storm drains, said SFPUC spokesperson Sabrina Suzuki. They needed help from citizens and were inspired by a program in Boston in which residents could adopt a fire hydrant. Allowing residents to name their drains and plotting them on a digital map would make it personal. Today, 3,557 drains throughout the city have been adopted by 2,345 drain adopters.

Top and bottom photos – Charles Russo