On a stronger path to Zero Trash

Stormwater pollution

On November 19, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board approved a stronger set of regulations for protecting water quality in our creeks and the Bay. The Municipal Regional Stormwater Permit regulates the untreated water that flows through the storm drains of Bay Area cities. This permit is one of our best tools for preventing the flow of trash from city streets into the Bay.

Trash in stormwater has been regulated since 2009 

In the Bay Area, trash has only been regulated as a pollutant in stormwater since 2009, when the Water Board adopted the first stormwater permit. The landmark 2009 permit established a timeline for cities to reduce trash in their stormwater system by 40% from 2009 levels by 2014, 70% by 2017, and a full 100% by 2022. As a part of this process, cities were required to evaluate their jurisdictions and made maps indicating how much trash is generated in each part of the city, and were required to identify and remedy trash hot spots, or creek and Bay shoreline locations where trash accumulates.

The 2009 regulations came about as a direct result of intense advocacy on the part of Save The Bay, our supporters, and other regional organizations. Bay Area cities have now had more than five years to develop and implement plans to keep trash out of their stormwater. Now that the Water Board has adopted a stronger policy, we have an opportunity to reflect on the challenges and successes of the last five years in order to chart a more productive path towards Zero Trash.

How have we done so far? 

Progress towards the stormwater permit’s zero trash requirement has been inconsistent, and it is unlikely that our region achieved the first milestone in the permit—a 40% reduction in trash by July 2014. While cities have implemented a variety of solutions, many trash problems remain. The City of Oakland, for example, beefed up their capacity to respond to illegal dumping —a major source of trash in the city. Their program removed over 34,000 cubic yards of illegally dumped trash in the last year, preventing a huge amount of trash from flowing in to storm drains and out to the Bay. However, a solution to the persistent trash problem in downtown Oakland remains elusive, which means trash from this area continues to flow into local waterways on a regular basis.

Cities are still struggling with monitoring programs to track their progress towards zero trash. Without adequate data it is impossible to say if the region is on track to achieve zero trash or if our cities need to implement more effective solutions. The City of Vallejo claims to have cut trash in half, but provides little data demonstrating that their trash reduction efforts are working. Meanwhile, the city still has hundreds of acres of trashy area to address over the next few years. An ongoing challenge will be to balance cities’ efforts to remove trash from their creeks with the need to prevent trash from reaching creeks in the first place. Actions to prevent trash from entering storm drains should be prioritized, but we also want to encourage cleanup efforts to prevent creek trash from flowing into the Bay and threatening wildlife.

Despite the challenges we face on the way to achieving the zero trash goal, the original timeline of zero trash by 2022 still stands. It’s important that the cities and citizens of the Bay Area take this goal seriously, as delays in reducing trash levels will only have damaging impacts on the health of the San Francisco Bay.

The New Permit and Next Steps 

Save The Bay advocated for many improvements to the stormwater permit based on the last five years of successes and challenges. The version adopted this week is a stronger step towards zero trash.

The new permit includes an additional benchmark for trash reduction, which requires cities to demonstrate an 80% reduction in trash by 2019. It also includes a provision for cities to establish monitoring programs in their creeks—in addition to their urban areas—so they can see how much of an effect their efforts at on-land cleanup have had on the creeks themselves.

The revised permit will still require zero trash by 2022. Eliminating trash flows to the Bay over the next 7 years is a big goal, but one that is frankly long overdue. We want the Bay Area to be a leader in eliminating stormwater pollution, and the new stormwater permit will help to ensure we achieve this goal.

With stronger regulations in place, Save The Bay will be working closely with local cities to ensure that we meet these ambitious goals. It’s going to take all of us. If you haven’t already, sign the Zero Trash Pledge and we’ll keep you updated about how to make sure that our region gets to zero trash.

3 thoughts on “On a stronger path to Zero Trash

  1. As I noted at the Water Board hearing on this matter, the City of East Palo Alto (EPA) believes in zero trash in the waterways. One of EPA’s biggest issues for San Francisquito Creek and the San Francisco Bay is the high incidence of people who lack housing. Many people are living in the Baylands surrounding the City, in San Francisquito Creek, or in their motor vehicles. In these cases, people lack adequate sanitation and discharge their waste (all types) directly into these waterways. Of course, they know it is wrong and probably know it is illegal, but these are desperate people.
    Another source of trash is illegal dumping–people do not want to (or cannot afford to) pay for proper solid waste disposal, so they dump the material all over the City, and directly into San Francisquito Creek.

    These are the two the primary sources of the most toxic materials we find in our waterways, including recent pesticides and insecticides that were illegally dumped directly into the creek bed. Clean up efforts from these activities have removed more trash and waste than the annual baseline load the City finds on our local streets (per 2009 estimates), yet we lack adequate means to address these issues. We are working on these issues, though.

    Full trash capture devices, community clean up events, street sweeping enhancements and on-street community clean-ups do not get at the bottom line of homelessness and random illegal dumping, yet are resulting in 50% of the solution. The other half is how we solve homelessness and illegal dumping as a region. Only then will we fully address the full scope of the problem.

  2. Michelle, thanks for this overview of the various sources of trash in local creeks. We agree that trash from the streets flowing into storm drains is only one of those sources, and in some communities, not necessary the largest. Save The Bay is committed to working with cities throughout the region to support projects and policies that address all sources of trash, including homelessness and illegal dumping.

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