From your backyard to the Bay, it’s time to cleanup!

In almost every city, trashy runoff flows directly into the Bay, untreated.

Distressing images of birds trapped in plastic debris and trash fouling beaches have sadly become common news stories. Events like International Coastal Clean Up Day (Saturday, September 16) and National Estuaries Week (September 16-23), bring much-needed attention to the cleanliness of our Bay, coastline, and waterways. But, often overlooked and not often discussed, is where the vast majority of this trash begins its journey to the Bay. When we look for answers we need to look further inland to one of the greatest sources of Bay trash… our city streets.

Trash is a daily and persistent threat to the health of our communities and neighborhoods. Illegal dumping creates chronic blight in many of our region’s neighborhoods, and city departments are struggling to respond in a timely manner. Homeless encampments lack access to trash bins, resulting in unsanitary and often dangerous living conditions. Trash is deliberately thrown on the ground and accidentally blows out of cars, garbage trucks, and trash bins.

The sources of trash are numerous, but the Bay is often the ultimate destination. Our streets are connected to the Bay through our storm drain system. In most places in the Bay Area, the grates you see next to the curb allow water and pollution to flow freely through a system of pipes that empty into creeks, rivers, and the Bay. Since stormwater does not flow to a treatment plant, all of the trash flowing through this system ultimately ends up in the environment.

Save The Bay has been working for almost a decade to keep trash out of the Bay, including advocating for regulations that require zero trash in city storm drains by 2022. Since most trash starts in our cities, our city leaders and local agencies must play a role in the solution.

The road to zero trash in the Bay is a tough one, but we are already seeing the positive impacts of our advocacy. In July, Save The Bay partnered with Oakland Community Organizations to advocate for additional funding in the city budget to prevent and respond to illegal dumping, a chronic problem that primarily impacts some of Oakland’s most underserved areas. Following pressure from Save The Bay, local and regional organizations, and the community, the city council adopted a budget that not only includes an additional $150,000 to address illegal dumping but also $1.6 million to place port-a-potties and clean trash from homeless encampments. The city also committed to installing trash screens in storm drains as a part of transportation projects.

This victory is only the beginning for our Zero Trash campaign. Like Oakland, cities and counties throughout the Bay Area need to secure additional funding to keep trash out of our neighborhoods and the Bay. Save The Bay is committed to advocating throughout the region to make the 2022 zero trash requirement a reality, and we hope you’ll join us by making a personal promise to reduce your trash footprint:

Four Simple Ways Your Can Reduce Your Trash Footprint!

 Thanks for all you do to help keep our Bay, coastline, and waterways, clean and healthy for all life. Stay tuned for opportunities to advocate for zero trash in your city.

What would the Bay be like without sharks?

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Often unfairly and inaccurately cast in movies as the violent villain of the deep, sharks play a starring role in maintaining the health of their ecosystem. So much so that their absence would drastically throw their habitat and food web entirely out of whack.

As an apex predator, their top down regulation of prey species indirectly benefits the habitat quality and availability. For example, sharks eat sea turtles, sea turtles eat seagrass, and numerous animals use seagrass as habitat. If sharks are not around to regulate the sea turtle population, then seagrass beds become overgrazed, effectively demolishing habitat and nursery areas for several species of fish and invertebrates.

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In other words, when sharks are present, they increase biodiversity in habitats as they prevent any one prey item from becoming too abundant. They also usually hunt fish that are slower and weaker, leaving the stronger, healthier fish to reproduce. This process can prevent the spread of devastating disease outbreaks and strengthen the prey species’ gene pool.

All in all, the loss of keystone species and release of predator regulation over prey populations results in a ripple effect through the food chain, upsetting the balance of a marine environment. Humans have already caused a major decline in shark numbers, and this same thing can happen here in San Francisco Bay.

What effect might the recent die off of hundreds of leopard sharks have on the Bay? What would happen to the sea lion population if there were no more white sharks patrolling the waters under the Golden Gate Bridge? One can speculate at the thought of these impacts on our Bay, or we can affect change through action.

Here are a few things you can do to help our local shark species thrive in San Francisco Bay:

  1. Volunteer to restore Bay wetlands: Often referred to as the “lungs of the Bay” our local wetlands help improve the Bay’s water quality, naturally protect communities from sea level rise, and provides nursery habitat for sharks and other wildlife that call the Bay Area home. Register for a Bay restoration event near you today!
  2. Reduce pollution at the source: Our Bay’s keystone species (among others) need a trash-free Bay to thrive. That’s why we’re now pressuring Bay Area cities to eliminate the flow of trash from city streets into the Bay by 2022, but it will take all of us to accomplish this ambitious goal. Take time to organize or volunteer for neighborhood cleanups, urge your local officials to prioritize stormwater projects, and if you haven’t already take the Zero Trash Pledge!

Oakland targeted in bid to cut trash flow into SF Bay

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A deluge of trash is flowing through Oakland’s storm drains and depositing so much litter in San Francisco Bay that regulators are threatening to levy fines if the city doesn’t do something to tidy up.

Despite spending millions of dollars over the years on garbage cleanup, Oakland has the Bay Area’s worst record for limiting the rubbish that pollutes creeks, lakes and the bay, according to the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The flow of waste violates mandates set by the board to reduce storm drain litter this year by 70 percent compared with 2009, a goal that Oakland is far from meeting. If the city is still in violation on the July 1 deadline, it could face fines of up to $10,000 a day.

“They have one of the worst problems per capita,” said Thomas Mumley, the assistant executive officer for the water quality board, which sent a warning letter to Oakland this month. “The problem isn’t Oakland. The problem is all the people who dump the trash in Oakland.”

Oakland’s public works committee, made up of four council members, met last week to discuss ways to address the issue. Mayor Libby Schaaf said recently it would cost $20 million to $25 million a year to add trash capture devices to the storm drain system and regulate illegal dumping enough to meet the 70 percent target.

“I don’t believe we’re going to meet that requirement by this July,” said councilman Dan Kalb, who chairs the public works committee and is president of Stop Waste, a countywide recycling program. “We agree, they are important goals and we have been making some progress over the years, but it’s just not enough.”

Oakland isn’t the only city struggling to comply with the regulations, which apply to the labyrinth of curbside drains, gutters, underground concrete channels, pipes and catch basins that take water off city streets and direct it toward the sea.

Last July, 26 of the 70 cities and other municipalities in Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Mateo and Solano counties fell short of the reduction target, which was then 60 percent.

Oakland had cut its output 44.6 percent by last year. Collectively, the Bay Area had achieved a 50 percent reduction compared with 2009 — the equivalent of a million gallons of trash.

The goals were set eight years ago after the water quality board required local agencies to measure the garbage flowing from storm drains. Regulators were concerned about the 2 million gallons of trash found bobbing in Bay Area waterways, about half of it plastic grocery bags, candy wrappers, lids, straws and chip bags.

For each city, compliance is calculated by measuring how much detritus local cleanup programs pull off the streets or out of the drains. More weight is given to the most effective measures, like installing hydrodynamic separators, which capture all garbage flowing down a drain. The amounts cleaned are subtracted from the 2009 baseline.

The crackdown is important, conservationists say, because the waste leaches toxins, flows into the bay and winds up in the ocean, where the plastic breaks down into tiny pieces that are ingested by marine mammals, fish and birds.

It was an indifferent attitude about litter, experts say, that created the enormous floating garbage patch in the North Pacific, a stew that marine biologists consider an ecosystem catastrophe.

In Oakland, where 8,000 storm drain inlets dump into a myriad of creeks, channels and the Oakland Estuary, one of the trashiest waterways is Damon Slough near the Coliseum complex.

The muddy banks were strewn last week with aerosol cans, juice bags, hypodermic needles, straws, tennis balls, liquor bottles, candy wrappers and numerous plastic bags.

“All of the trash in here is from storm drains at the Coliseum or wind blown from the parking lot,” said David Lewis, executive director of the nonprofit Save the Bay, as he stood next to the foul-smelling slough. “There are five or six creeks that all empty into this area here. It is the pathway, the water column, and it circulates all over.”

The stepped-up mandate this year is likely to trip up at least as many cities and agencies as last year, including San Jose, Richmond, Vallejo, San Leandro and Berkeley.

San Francisco is exempt from the guidelines because, unlike other cities in the Bay Area, it funnels storm water runoff into its sewer system, which removes the trash before it is discharged.

But Oakland’s failure has gotten special attention because it has a larger deficit to make up than any other city, according to a compliance summary prepared by the control board. San Jose is a distant second.

“Oakland is the largest source of trash from a city that is not close to compliance,” Lewis said. “It is heavily urbanized, right next to the bay, and the city is not doing what it needs to do to address the problem.”

Oakland spends $6.5 million a year on street sweeping and $5.5 million regulating dumping. The city also bans businesses from using foam packaging and plastic shopping bags, but workers still can’t keep up with the litter on the streets, said Lesley Estes, the city’s storm water manager.

She said 12 hydrodynamic separators have been placed in storm drains around the city, but that the devices’ price tag of $400,000 to $1 million makes them too expensive to install throughout the system.

Oakland’s strategy, she said, is to place mesh pipe screens, which must be cleaned out more often, in all of the drains not covered by the separators. Some 200 screens have been installed during public works projects in high-use areas.

Estes, who believes Oakland can reach a 60 percent reduction this year, said she’ll have a clearer picture of the city’s progress when she analyzes data after the fiscal year that closes June 30. She plans to prepare a compliance report and present it to the water quality board by Sept. 30 in the hope that regulators give the city credit for, among other things, its foam and plastic bag bans.

No additional money is set aside for storm drain cleanup in the mayor’s proposed budget for 2017-19.

“Not all other cities are faced with the same degree of issues that Oakland faces,” Estes said, referring to high priorities like fighting crime and homelessness. “The staff’s commitment to this effort is wholehearted and gung-ho, but it’s a difficult problem, and we just need to figure out the best pathway.”

A path Estes would like to avoid is one followed by San Jose, which last June agreed to pay $100 million over the next decade to settle a lawsuit by the nonprofit group Baykeeper for failing to reduce sewage and trash in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

San Jose officials, who said they settled to avoid a lengthy court battle, agreed to clean 32 trash hot spots, including homeless encampments along Coyote Creek and the Guadalupe River, at least once a year. According to regulators, there is a lot less trash emerging from San Jose since the settlement.

The storm drain proviso will only get tougher in July 2019, when Bay Area jurisdictions regulated by the water quality board will be obligated to cut garbage output 80 percent. The goal is zero waste by 2022.

The board’s Mumley said cities like Oakland could be given more time to meet the coming July 1 deadline, if they outline specific efforts to reduce trash.

“My preference would be to give them a chance to solve the problem,” he said, “but ultimately the solution has to be changing public behavior.”

 

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This article was originally published online in the San Francisco Chronicle on May 30, 2017. 

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.

Op-Ed: Trump budget would make America dirty and sick again

Jorge Gonzalez, searches for debris near collected old tires at Warm Water Cove, in San Francisco, Calif., as he joins hundreds of volunteers participating in the Community Team's Coastal Cleanup Day, at different locations along the San Francisco Bay shoreline, on Sat. September 19, 2015. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle
Jorge Gonzalez, searches for debris near collected old tires at Warm Water Cove, in San Francisco, Calif., as he joins hundreds of volunteers participating in the Community Team’s Coastal Cleanup Day, at different locations along the San Francisco Bay shoreline, on Sat. September 19, 2015. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

President Trump’s budget proposal is a direct assault on our health and safety. The enormous cuts he is proposing to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other departments will hurt people and the planet by gutting enforcement of laws that protect the water we drink, the air we breathe and the environment that sustains us.

How many voters last year asked for more smoggy skies and fouled water, for less enforcement of criminal pollution and faster climate change? It’s doubtful most Trump voters want that, but his budget sides with polluter interests and climate deniers — not with us.

The EPA has a huge responsibility but a tiny budget. Out of every $10 in federal taxes, just two cents goes to the EPA. Cutting the EPA’s budget by 31 percent would not save much money, but it would cost a lot in lives, in lost productivity from illness and in pollution damage to crucial resources such as San Francisco Bay.

The Bay is our region’s greatest natural treasure, the heart of our economy and quality of life. It took enormous effort to return the Bay to health from near-death 40 years ago, when it was choked with garbage, sewage and industrial waste.

The Clean Water Act and the EPA helped build treatment plants in the 1970s that made the Bay’s beaches safe and its waters swimmable again. Harbor porpoises have even returned to the Bay.

As the Bay Area keeps growing, we need more federal investment, not less, to combat the impacts of climate change, freshwater diversion and polluted storm water pouring unfiltered off streets into the Bay.

Bay Area voters agreed to tax themselves in last year’s Measure AA to accelerate shoreline wetlands restoration that’s mostly within a federal wildlife refuge. The federal government should match our investment, yet Trump’s budget would zero out EPA’s $5 million program that protects marsh habitat and reduces pollution in the Bay.

And the cuts go much deeper.

The Bay Area environment is not a bubble. We’re connected to the rest of California and the nation, where the EPA’s programs have made people and wildlife healthier and safer. Agency warnings about threats to fish species and water quality in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta are forcing a rewrite of Gov. Jerry Brown’s California Water Fix. The EPA’s Clean Air Act enforcement reduced smog from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh and forced safer drinking water in cities nationwide. To avoid more health crises like the tragedy in Flint, Mich., we need a stronger EPA, not budget cuts that slash enforcement.

The EPA identifies and cleans up toxic waste at Superfund sites, including more than 50 in the Bay Area. Its Toxics Release Inventory publishes data online so we know the pollution risks in our backyards. It is on the front lines of addressing the climate change that is already hurting our health, natural resources and economy.

The EPA has helped cut global warming gases from U.S. power plants, factories and cars, and its energy efficiency standards have reduced our consumption of fossil fuels. While Trump and his Cabinet deny facts and ignore science, the EPA is required by law to limit the carbon emissions that are cooking the planet. But that takes resources and staff that Trump would cut.

We must tell Congress to reject reckless budget cuts to environmental protection. Every mayor and city council member must echo that call. Our governor and state Legislature must keep their pledge to enforce laws if the federal government does relax its efforts, and fund enforcement of those laws.

Trump’s budget would make America dirty and sick again, and nobody who breathes or drinks should stand for it.

 

David Lewis is the executive director of Save the Bay. Learn more at www.savesfbay.org.
This Op-ed was originally published in the SF Chronicle on 3/18,2017.