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.