What #Stormageddon Means for the Bay

Stormwater pollution storm drains rain water drought
As much as recent rainstorms have been a boon for parched landscapes across California, there is a dark side to all the wet stuff – trash and other pollution that collects in gutters, and in many cases, ends up flowing directly to creeks, rivers, and the Bay. Photo by Patrick Band

Although last week’s storm wasn’t quite all it was hyped up to be, it was still an impressive showing from Mother Nature. Some of the worst flooding occurred in the North Bay town of Healdsburg, where the Russian River jumped from a bucolic 700 cubic feet per second to a raging 40,000 cubic feet per second. Nevertheless, the flooding – which inundated downtown businesses – wasn’t caused by the river jumping its banks (it didn’t), but rather by smaller creeks and detention ponds becoming inundated so quickly. With over 6 inches of rain falling within 12-14 hours, there simply wasn’t anywhere for the water to go.

With forecasts calling for a series of smaller storms in coming days, it’s worth recapping what all the wet stuff means for California and the Bay in particular.


You’ve probably heard of First Flush – just as early season storms make roads treacherous because of all the accumulated oil and grime, big rains wash all of the plastic wrappers, cigarette butts, and random trash that accumulate in our urban environment and carry them in to the storm water system. With an estimated 3 billion cigarette butts littered around the Bay each year, that’s a whole lot of toxic trash!

We’ll be keeping an eye out during this weekend’s King Tides to see what washes up on the shores, and share out any interesting finds.

Water Supply

Despite the estimated 10 trillion gallons of water that fell across the state last week, most major reservoirs are barely above the half-way mark for the year. The state’s three largest reservoirs – Shasta, Oroville, and Trinity – are all below 55% of average storage for the year, and at roughly 30% of total capacity.

Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California and well-regarded expert on climate and water issues put it well when speaking with KQED earlier in the week:

“Thursday it’ll rain, and people will say, ‘Oh, I’m very excited,’ and Saturday it’ll rain, and ‘Oh, drought’s over.’ Not even close. It’s going to take a lot of rain to break this drought.”


It goes by all sorts of names – mud, silt, sand, gunk, soil, dirt. It’s both a bane to water quality that can ultimately lead to massive die-offs of species, and a necessary element to systems like the Bay where sediment accumulates along the shoreline and helps wetlands keep up with rising tides.

While the short-term increase in sediment may not make news in the Bay Area, statewide, there are some surprising results. Just an hour or so away in the Bay Delta, sediment loads are forcing pumping reductions of water to Central Valley farmers and Southern California. Turns out, the endangered Delta Smelt really enjoy muddy water, because it provides them a level of protection against predators. So paradoxically, Delta pump operators are cutting back at the exact time when flows are higher than they’ve been for years.

That spells good news for the Delta Smelt, and for the Bay.

Talking Trash in San Jose

Over two dozen Bay Area creeks are so full of trash that they violate the Clean Water Act.
Over two dozen Bay Area creeks are so full of trash that they violate the Clean Water Act.

What do you call it when 300 municipal and agency staff, nonprofits, and elected and appointed officials get together to talk trash?  Save The Bay and others who organized the event called it the 2013 Bay Area Trash Summit, and participants called it a huge success.

On November 15th, the City of San Jose hosted the summit to foster regional collaboration on finding solutions to the serious trash problem in the Bay Area.  Presentations ranged from lessons learned on plastic bag and Styrofoam bans, to strategies for preventing illegal dumping, to methodologies for measuring trash reduction in our waterways.

I was particularly excited to moderate a plenary session on tobacco litter – it was a great way to help launch our new campaign to fight this toxic, plastic trash that is littered in staggering amounts throughout the Bay Area.  The session featured Dr. Tom Novotny, President/CEO of the Cigarette Pollution Prevention Project; the City of San Rafael, and students from the St. Paul’s Episcopal School in Oakland.  Dr. Novotny discussed various strategies to prevent tobacco litter, including outdoor smoking restrictions, litter fees, and banning filters (they’re made of plastic and don’t protect smokers’ health).  Cory Bytof, San Rafael’s Volunteer and Sustainability Program Coordinator, discussed the city’s outdoor smoking ordinance and their collaboration with the community to curb cigarette litter – their Cigarette Eater Meter has raised awareness and money for a local organization.  Last, but certainly not least, 6th and 7th graders from St. Paul’s discussed their efforts to convince the City of Oakland to install receptacles at cigarette litter hot spots along Lake Merritt’s shoreline.  With each presentation, I was even more motivated to work with Bay Area cities to address this serious and preventable problem and keep our Bay butt free.

Bay Area cities are faced with the challenged of eliminating trash in their waterways by 2022, with an interim requirement to reduce trash by 40% by July of next year.  The good news is that many innovative solutions to the Bay’s trash problem were presented that day, and I look forward to seeing them implemented throughout the region.

We all deserve a Butt Free Bay

Keep your butts out of our Bay!We’ve all seen cigarette butts littering our streets, parks, and beaches, but did you know they’re more than just gross?  Cigarette butts are plastic, toxic litter that threaten Bay wildlife and water quality.  Over 3 billion cigarettes are littered every year in the Bay Area, and many of those find their way into storm drains, flow into creeks, and out to the Bay.

The science behind cigarette butt litter is scary.  Not only does the tobacco contain 69 carcinogenic compounds and a host of heavy metals like lead and chromium, the filter is made from a plastic called cellulose acetate, which is also treated with chemicals.  The result?  A “concentrated brew of environmental toxins.”  To add insult to injury, that plastic filter is not biodegradable, contrary to many peoples’ beliefs.

That pile of cigarette butts outside your local bar or next to your bus stop is a toxic waste dump, and the public bears the burden.  It’s a fire hazard, a public health hazard, and a huge cost to your city.  The City of San Francisco estimates that it spends $6 million per year to clean up cigarette butts alone.  That’s ridiculous and unfair.  Other industries, like those who manufacture computers, tires, medications, and paint, fund county and state programs to properly dispose of their products so that tax payers and cities aren’t left footing the bill.  Why haven’t the tobacco companies taken similar responsibility?

That’s why we set up a petition to tell tobacco companies to keep their butts out of our Bay – please sign it today.  And while we work on demanding this accountability, we will also work locally with Bay Area cities and counties to enact policies that prevent cigarette butts from poisoning our waterways.  Some have already begun to take action, and we will build upon this momentum.

More to come on this serious Bay pollution issue…

San Francisco Bay: Home to leopard sharks and toxic trash

hot spot or not
Vote on the trashiest waterway in the Bay. We’ll adopt the winner for cleanup.

San Francisco Bay is a thriving natural treasure encircled by vibrant wetlands and home to many critters like seals, pelicans and leopard sharks.  Unfortunately, it is also home to trash – and a lot of it.  In fact, some parts of the Bay are so trashy that they violate the Federal Clean Water Act.

Luckily, Save The Bay is giving the community a chance to do something about this trash problem….What’s more is that you can do this from your computer and it only takes 5 minutes!  Visit the Bay Trash Hot Spots website and vote “Hot Spot” or “Not.”  Save The Bay will harness volunteers to adopt and clean up the top-voted spot!

I know that you, like me, do not purposely litter.  So, you are probably wondering where all this trash is coming from.  I helped clean up the San Jose shoreline on Coastal Cleanup Day a few weekends ago and was disgusted by the amount of tiny pieces of Styrofoam, plastic bags, cigarette butts and more we cleared from the environment.

Sure, some of this trash was purposely littered (like the cigarette butts), but a lot of it likely blew out of overflowing trash cans and into storm drains and creeks where it flowed to the Bay.  Plastic trash is especially dangerous to animals that mistake it for food, eat it and then are poisoned or starve.

In addition to hosting cleanups, Save The Bay is focused on stopping trash at its source.  That’s why we are working with cities all over the Bay to pass strong bans on plastic bags and Styrofoam.   We are proud that currently 50% of Bay Area residents live in communities that have banned single-use plastic bags, and 30 cities or counties have banned Styrofoam food packaging. And five years after passing the first bag ban in the country, San Francisco’s expanded plastic bag ban goes into effect October 1st.

All of us working together have the power to reduce Bay pollution to keep our water clean and protect our quality of life.  Please remember to bring your reusable bags when shopping.  And simply take just 5 minutes right now to vote for the hottest hot spot.  And then join Save The Bay as a volunteer to help clean it up. The critters in the Bay will thank you!