Getting to Zero Trash: Oakland’s Challenge and Our Opportunity

In almost every city, trashy runoff flows directly into the Bay, untreated.
In Oakland and in most Bay Area cities, trashy runoff flows from city streets directly into the Bay via a network of municipal storm drains.

Putting an end to the pollution of San Francisco Bay by stormwater-borne trash that harms our wildlife, spoils our shores, and further damages our oceans has long been a top priority for Save The Bay and our supporters.

In 2015, Save The Bay fought hard to strengthen the Municipal Regional Stormwater Permit (MRP) issued by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (Water Board) to reduce the amount of trash found in stormwater discharges from 78 Bay Area governments and agencies. The MRP now requires all of them to achieve a 70 percent reduction from 2009 levels of stormwater-borne trash flowing into San Francisco Bay by July 1, 2017, an 80 percent reduction by July 1, 2019, and a full 100 percent trash load reduction – zero trash – by July 1, 2022.

To help prepare these governments and agencies to meet their trash reduction requirements, the Water Board asked them to demonstrate compliance with a July 1, 2016 target reduction of 60 percent, and as we reported recently, the results showed fully one-third of them had fallen short of this goal, some dramatically.

But the Water Board isn’t the only entity tracking the amount of trash flowing into the Bay. The City of San Jose, the largest covered by the permit, settled a Clean Water Act lawsuit brought by San Francisco Baykeeper by entering into a consent decree requiring that it undertake a long list of measures to ensure that the permit’s trash reduction goals are met. The estimated cost of this court-enforced settlement is an additional $100 million over ten years (inclusive of stormwater trash reduction costs, costs of compliance monitoring, and costs of mitigation projects in place of civil penalties), plus $425,000 in plaintiff’s legal fees.

Now that the City of San Jose’s trash reduction shortfalls are being remedied under monitoring and enforcement by the court, the City of Oakland stands as the biggest violator of the permit’s requirements as measured by the total volume of stormwater-borne trash flowing into the Bay over and above target levels.

Reducing Oakland’s Trash Load: Shortfalls and Solutions for 2017

As of July 2016, Oakland had cut its trash load by only 45 percent, meaning nearly 25,000 gallons more trash were flowing from its streets into the Bay than July 2017’s 70 percent reduction requirement will allow.

The risks to the City of Oakland for failing to remedy this shortfall are substantial. In particular, a lawsuit to enforce the requirements of the Clean Water Act could end up costing the City of Oakland millions of dollars per year and requiring implementation of compliance measures that maximize stormwater trash reduction by placement of multiple trash capture devices in the ground while minimizing trash reduction strategies that would improve Oakland residents’ quality of life. These include enforcement of illegal dumping laws and faster pickup of dumped refuse, increased frequency of street sweeping, reducing the numbers of homeless people living in street encampments by providing them with permanent housing, and enhanced urban greening.

The good news is that City of Oakland staff has now submitted to the Water Board the outline of a multi-benefit trash reduction plan that could achieve July 2017’s 70 percent reduction requirement, but only if it is fleshed out in more detail, if it wins Water Board staff approval, and if it is fully funded for implementation.

This outline has as its largest element a reduction in “Direct Discharge,” the category of trash that flows into the Bay from homeless encampments and illegal dumping. Oakland’s plan also includes more effective use of street sweeping, expansion of the City’s plastic bag ban, deployment of green infrastructure, and greater use of storm drain trash capture devices.

Moving quickly to complete, fully fund, and implement this plan will enhance the quality of life for Oakland’s diverse communities, reduce the City’s exposure to enforcement action by the Water Board or in the courts, and model for the entire region a multi-benefit approach that takes big steps toward achieving a greener city and a cleaner Bay. The fact is that if Oakland can do it, every Bay Area government and agency can do it.

Achieving Zero Trash Compliance: 2018-2022

To maximize its protection against potential liability, the City of Oakland must also act immediately to craft a credible plan that will meet the requirement for 100 percent trash load reduction – zero trash – by 2022.

This plan should include all currently accepted practices considered effective for reducing trash, and should be integrated into an expanded multi-benefit strategy designed to address pressing issues of neighborhood blight and homelessness, sanitation and public health, and lack of urban greening, as well as stormwater pollution.

In particular, given that Oakland will soon be adopting a biennial budget that extends all the way through June 2019, it is critical that the city develop and implement a plan and a budget for trash reduction improvements that will achieve the 80 percent reduction required by the MRP as of July 2019. At a minimum, any such plan will require greater use of both large and small trash capture devices than envisioned in the existing outline.

The additional costs of a fully phased-in, multi-benefit plan sufficient to reach the zero trash goal by 2022 have not yet been calculated by city staff, but we know that if the city does not pursue such a plan and is ordered instead to rely on storm sewer upgrades alone to meet its requirements, Oakland will miss opportunities to leverage expenditures in other critical program areas to achieve its mandated stormwater trash reductions.

While Oakland must exert some fiscal effort to meet even the costs of an incremental, multi-benefit plan that takes advantage of synergies with expenditures necessary to provide other key municipal services, Save The Bay is also committed to pursuing new funding sources that will help underwrite zero trash implementation.

In particular, Save The Bay is working hard to pass SB 231 (Hertzberg), which would clarify the definition that enables agency charges for sewer services to include charges associated with the stormwater sewer system.

How You Can Help

If you are an Oakland resident, please email your City Councilmember and write that you need them to:

  • Support a greener city and a cleaner Bay in the city budget by fully funding a detailed, multi-benefit program that will meet the Water Board’s 2017 and 2018 stormwater trash reduction requirements.
  • Ensure city staff sets forth a comprehensive plan now to meet the Water Board’s 2022 zero trash goal.

If you are not an Oakland resident, please sign our petition to Oakland City Council and let them know “The Whole Bay Is Watching” and wants to see Oakland lead the way to a clean and healthy Bay by achieving its 2017 and 2018 stormwater trash reduction requirements and laying out a plan to get to zero trash by 2022.