Caltrans, stop trashing San Francisco Bay

Eric Hoover found a tire and places it into the pile collected at India Basin Shoreline Park in San Francisco. Photo by Paul Kuroda

The San Francisco Chronicle originally published this article on February 15, 2018

Litter on California’s freeways and state roads is a disgrace, and it’s also one of the biggest reasons San Francisco Bay is choked with trash.

Every time it rains, trash from freeways and busy state roads, like El Camino Real and San Pablo Avenue, pours through storm drains into creeks and, ultimately, San Francisco Bay. Bottles, wrappers, Styrofoam, straws and cigarettes poison fish and wildlife, smother wetland habitat and deface the shoreline.

It’s time for our state transportation agency, Caltrans, to obey the law and stop polluting our waters. For years, Caltrans has violated the federal Clean Water Act and state storm water permits that prohibit uncontrolled trash flows from its roads.

Who bears the burden of that violation? It’s Bay Area cities, which are already striving to meet their own legal obligation to allow zero trash flow to the bay by 2022.

That’s because trash that drains off state roads becomes the local city’s responsibility.

So Caltrans ignoring road trash means cities from Oakland to Santa Clara face higher cleanup bills, or even fines for polluting the bay. That’s not fair. And when a state agency ignores the law, it becomes tougher to hold private individuals and companies accountable for polluting the bay.

Fortunately, the solutions are clear. Caltrans must remove roadside litter more often, and put trash-capture devices in storm drains on highways and right-of-ways. A few of these devices have been installed in problem locations, but only where cities pressed Caltrans hard for action.

In Richmond, Caltrans paid to install two trash separators in storm drains near I-580 that will screen water draining off 831 acres of urban streets. In San Jose, Caltrans agreed to fund a partnership with the city’s Conservation Corps to increase freeway cleanups.

Trash lines the shores of Damon Slough near the McAfee Coliseum and Highway 880, one of the worst trash hotspots in the Bay Area. Photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle

Those efforts stop only a fraction of the trash headed from state roads to the bay. In most of the identified trash hot spots, Caltrans is doing nothing — even where trash separators could be incorporated into needed road maintenance. The agency is years behind in dedicating money and setting a specific timeline to cut trash pollution, claiming funding constraints even though its budget this year is $11.3 billion.

The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board called Caltrans’ behavior “deficient” more than three years ago, and issued a formal notice of violation over a year ago. But the board has not used its power to mandate actions and penalties for these violations. The victims are seals, pelicans and other wildlife choked and poisoned by trash in the bay.

It’s unacceptable for our state agencies to keep violating the Clean Water Act, especially as Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature proclaim our state will uphold federal environmental laws that the Trump administration is trying to erode.

The regional water board should immediately take enforcement action against Caltrans and require the agency to obey the law by cleaning up road litter and installing full trash-capture devices in the worst areas.

Continued violations deserve penalties and fines, just like a private polluter would face.

Until that reckoning, the state is shirking its duty to protect San Francisco Bay, our fish and wildlife, and public health.

So clean up your roads, Caltrans. Stop making San Francisco Bay wildlife and Bay Area cities pay for your pollution.

David Lewis is the executive director of Save The Bay.

Bringing Nature to Neighborhoods: Meet Josh Lankford, Save The Bay Volunteer

Josh Lankford knows numbers. A mechanical engineering student at the University of Rochester, this Oakland native estimates he travels by bike about 90% of the time when he visits the Bay Area. But digits can’t describe what he senses each ride.

“On a bike, I don’t block out the world listening to music. So, I really feel like part of the ecosystem, going through neighborhoods — seeing how people interact, taking in smells, breathing in air, I experience all of that, everything around me.”

Josh grew up in East Oakland, and as a kid, he “never really had the opportunity to see the ‘grandeur’ of California.” He didn’t go “snowboarding in Tahoe” or “hiking in the Santa Cruz Mountains.” Yet, he never felt deprived of nature. “I was around green spaces every day living in Oakland. So, though I didn’t see the grandest places, I was still exposed to the idea of what it’s like to be in a foreign land. Being in [Redwood Regional Park] is like living in another world.”

Indeed, Josh developed his fondness for the outdoors at a young age, flying kites along the MLK Shoreline. It’s why he now bristles at the assumption that cities inherently spell problems for the environment. “[Many think] of the city as the heart of the battle for conservation. But people who grew up in suburbs, sometimes all they know is development and they never question it. Whereas in cities, it’s about efficiency, it’s about using spaces wisely.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that public transit is near and dear to Josh’s heart. “Having AC Transit, BART, allowed me to access parts of the city with more opportunities.” Buses and trains enabled him to intern at Kaiser; they brought him right to UC Berkeley for the university’s Upward Bound program.

One of his most formative experiences growing up? Volunteering with Save The Bay during high school. “I did my senior project on mental health, about green spaces in the city and volunteering. I thought Save The Bay would be a good [aspect to include] – connecting environmental preservation and mental health.”

Having pulled weeds and installed plants with us a few more times since then, Josh now feels strongly about the power of our programs. “I think Save The Bay can play an important role in people’s lives – not just by making a difference physically [in the wetlands]. It causes us to question the impact of our lives on land.”

Still an undergrad, Josh has already decided: “Save The Bay is one of my favorite organizations. Once I get a job, I’m going to donate every year.” For now, he’s hoping to secure a summer internship with BART to help people get where they need to go.

There’s also something simmering on the back burner for Josh: “My hope is that we transform our perception of wilderness. We need to stop designating things as ‘wilderness.’ We need to incorporate greenery into our neighborhoods.”

This weighty goal keeps him recalling his childhood and high school years exploring the outdoors right from Oakland. “I think the most powerful thing of all for me was hiking in my own backyard in the Redwood Regional Park – it made me see nature on a regular basis. Now, it’s something I want to see everywhere because I saw it in my own backyard.”

Reading in the Fog, Sailing in the Wind: Introducing Wai Leng Baker

Fog over San Francisco Bay, photo by Kathryn Barnhart

Foggy days never dampen the mood for Wai Leng Baker. “I read, I have a cup of tea and a couple cookies, and… it’s great!” Occasionally, Wai Leng introduces a bit of sound into her peaceful pastime: “Sometimes, I play music too in the background – Mozart or Vivaldi – nothing too terribly intrusive.”

Our recent Alaska Airlines ticket winner has lived in the Bay Area for more than 40 years, and even in its coldest weather, she finds contentment. “Even if I don’t want to go out, I look at the trees and I feel it’s beautiful. It’s uplifting, even when it’s foggy and rainy.”

A long-time donor to Save The Bay, Wai Leng admits she and her husband aren’t too active outdoors anymore. But her memories of their sailing trips around San Francisco Bay have inspired a firm commitment to protect this “treasure” for generations. “We used to see seals, then there’d be birds – just a wonderful sense that there’s something really fresh out there. I’m hoping Save The Bay will keep it really clean and nice.”

Wai Leng says she donates to Save The Bay because the gift always “goes to something concrete. It’s spending money on the Bay itself – saving it.” Our emphasis on education is the biggest reason why Wai Leng writes checks. She says it’s critical that we: “spread the word among the little ones, because the children are going to conserve the Bay in the future.”

Indeed, she’s seen firsthand how exposure to the outdoors at a young age can fundamentally shape a person’s appreciation for nature. Her niece was a little girl during the family’s sailing trips years ago, and she was always thrilled to “scatter popcorn around for the seagulls, who would follow in a big group.” As a grownup, this relative “now runs short marathons [around the Bay Area]. She got involved in the outdoors because of that.”

Wai Leng admits she’s still pretty amazed her recent $250+ gift to Save The Bay scored her four tickets to anywhere Alaska Airlines flies. Our prize winner stressed: “I was really surprised! I have never won anything in my life! I was so shocked! I said, ‘are you sure? You’re really from Save The Bay?’”

As she charts out her travel plans, Wai Leng is glad to know her gift will help protect the place she’s called home for decades. “I live here. I want to keep my whole environment as beautiful as possible. I am a strong believer that when I finally do pass through the Earth, I should leave it better or at least as good as how I found it.”

Saving the Bay Takes Tools: Step Inside our “Roving Office”

A peek inside Save The Bay’s roving office

When your work is restoring wetlands, a desktop computer and a trusty stack of post-its just won’t do. Our Restoration staffers install plants. They pull weeds. They teach thousands of students about the salt marsh harvest mouse and its favorite snack: pickleweed.

What’s required for every one of these tasks? Tools. And….

“Everything that we need is in the truck.”

Habitat Restoration Manager Donna Ball in the field

Donna Ball, our Habitat Restoration Director, really enjoys talking about her team’s “roving office.”

Plastic bins? “We have one for gloves, one for picks, one for trowels.”

An Igloo cooler? “Our volunteers work really hard. There’s a chance to get dehydrated, so we want to make sure they take time to have a break and drink water.”

The auger that changed the game? “We used to dig all our plant holes by hand, but the [auger] makes it easier for volunteers to install the plants with less work. So, they actually enjoy it more!”

Donna admits she has a soft spot not for the tools themselves, but the experiences they make possible for our volunteers. “I think the interaction is more with a plant – when they gently fill in ground with soil. People really do ask: ‘are my plants going to live?’ Will they be here when I come back and visit?’”

Rachelle Cardona, our Restoration Education Program Manager, believes a “roving office” inspires a spirit of innovation, the kind of resourcefulness that might be stifled in a traditional work space.

Rachelle’s illustration

An Igloo cooler showcases healthy habits: “We always offer water and sunscreen. But we use this moment to talk about self-care and instruct kids to be mindful of their wellness in the outdoors.”

Macleod with a wetlands twist: “It’s a broad-edged rake that fire crews carry. But our teams use Macleods to scrape weed seedlings off the shoreline.”

Yet, it was actually a missing tool that inspired her most rewarding memory of all in the wetlands. (Rachelle took a moment to illustrate her handiwork, and then she shared this story – and post-it – with me!).

“We had already installed hundreds of plants that day, but the hose wasn’t in the trailer when it came time to water them. So, I took folded-up trash bags and made handles out of duct tape – basically created a chute. Then, I asked volunteers to line up with buckets so we could get water to the plants. It was a proud MacGyver moment in my life!’”

Planting Seeds to Save our Bay: Welcoming Rebecca Wynd

I know I am not alone in feeling a deep bond to the diverse landscapes of the Bay Area. I was fortunate enough to spend my childhood living in the Bay Area and exploring everywhere from the redwoods and grasslands to the marshes and sand dunes. Those moments have driven me to give back to the land that has given so much to me.

I am overjoyed to be joining Save the Bay as its Nursery Specialist. I was introduced to Save the Bay this past summer, when I participated in the fellowship program as the Nursery and Habitat Restoration Fellow. I felt inspired by the three women who started Save the Bay in 1961, and by the resourceful people I worked with on the habitat restoration team, who give their all every day.

Luckily, working closely with plants wasn’t new to me. I spent years gardening in several urban farms throughout Berkeley and Oakland. For two years, I managed an educational farm that is part of a summer camp in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

When I returned from the mountains I had the opportunity to work with the Golden Gate Parks Conservancy as a habitat restoration technician — work that I realized is quite similar to gardening! It was rewarding to get to know the landscapes I grew up with in an entirely new way, through the lenses of the endangered and endemic species whose habitats were threatened by human development. I felt so aligned with habitat restoration work, as it offered a truly reciprocal relationship with the landscape.

I also assisted at the Presidio Native Plant Nursery, which grows plants for restoration projects throughout the Presidio Trust. I relished the detail-oriented nature of this work and admired the tiny scale at which nursery initiatives operate. Planting small seeds and watching them sprout is my version of magic, and I feel lucky to facilitate this process every day!

Native plant nurseries are essential components of habitat restoration. Since the areas in which we work have been degraded so heavily, the natural balance that allows native plants to grow and flourish in an ecosystem is not yet in place. Nurseries are safe spaces for native plants to become strong before they are planted at a restoration site.

As the nursery specialist I am humbled to be able to grow over 30,000 plants a year for our restoration projects in tidal wetlands throughout the Bay Area. This number will continue to grow, as our projects expand in the coming years. With 90% of natural tidal wetlands in the Bay Area lost, habitat restoration is a critical step towards healing tidal wetlands. They serve an irreplaceable role in climate change mitigation, and in protecting them, we protect numerous species, including the endangered Ridgeway’s Rail and Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse that call the Bay Area home.

I am especially looking forward to our public nursery programs, where I have the privilege of sharing our fun and rewarding work with all of you!