What #Stormageddon Means for the Bay

Stormwater pollution storm drains rain water drought
As much as recent rainstorms have been a boon for parched landscapes across California, there is a dark side to all the wet stuff – trash and other pollution that collects in gutters, and in many cases, ends up flowing directly to creeks, rivers, and the Bay. Photo by Patrick Band

Although last week’s storm wasn’t quite all it was hyped up to be, it was still an impressive showing from Mother Nature. Some of the worst flooding occurred in the North Bay town of Healdsburg, where the Russian River jumped from a bucolic 700 cubic feet per second to a raging 40,000 cubic feet per second. Nevertheless, the flooding – which inundated downtown businesses – wasn’t caused by the river jumping its banks (it didn’t), but rather by smaller creeks and detention ponds becoming inundated so quickly. With over 6 inches of rain falling within 12-14 hours, there simply wasn’t anywhere for the water to go.

With forecasts calling for a series of smaller storms in coming days, it’s worth recapping what all the wet stuff means for California and the Bay in particular.

Trash

You’ve probably heard of First Flush – just as early season storms make roads treacherous because of all the accumulated oil and grime, big rains wash all of the plastic wrappers, cigarette butts, and random trash that accumulate in our urban environment and carry them in to the storm water system. With an estimated 3 billion cigarette butts littered around the Bay each year, that’s a whole lot of toxic trash!

We’ll be keeping an eye out during this weekend’s King Tides to see what washes up on the shores, and share out any interesting finds.

Water Supply

Despite the estimated 10 trillion gallons of water that fell across the state last week, most major reservoirs are barely above the half-way mark for the year. The state’s three largest reservoirs – Shasta, Oroville, and Trinity – are all below 55% of average storage for the year, and at roughly 30% of total capacity.

Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California and well-regarded expert on climate and water issues put it well when speaking with KQED earlier in the week:

“Thursday it’ll rain, and people will say, ‘Oh, I’m very excited,’ and Saturday it’ll rain, and ‘Oh, drought’s over.’ Not even close. It’s going to take a lot of rain to break this drought.”

Sediment

It goes by all sorts of names – mud, silt, sand, gunk, soil, dirt. It’s both a bane to water quality that can ultimately lead to massive die-offs of species, and a necessary element to systems like the Bay where sediment accumulates along the shoreline and helps wetlands keep up with rising tides.

While the short-term increase in sediment may not make news in the Bay Area, statewide, there are some surprising results. Just an hour or so away in the Bay Delta, sediment loads are forcing pumping reductions of water to Central Valley farmers and Southern California. Turns out, the endangered Delta Smelt really enjoy muddy water, because it provides them a level of protection against predators. So paradoxically, Delta pump operators are cutting back at the exact time when flows are higher than they’ve been for years.

That spells good news for the Delta Smelt, and for the Bay.

Soggy Coastal Cleanup Day Yields Unexpected Lesson

Saturday, September 21, 2013 was a strange day. The last day of summer brought a freak September rain storm, which swiftly dropped tons of rain on a thirsty Bay Area and marked the first-ever confluence of Coastal Cleanup Day and First Flush. First Flush is our term for the first big rain of the season, which washes actual rivers of trash from streets into storm drains and out into our waterways and the Bay.

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That may sound dramatic but it’s not. We had a perfect view of this phenomenon from Highway 880, as we headed home from our cleanup site at Martin Luther King Jr. Shoreline in Oakland, CA. The water was flowing swiftly and we could see Styrofoam cups and plastic water bottles, along with other debris, bobbing along in the current right next to the highway.

Despite the rain, 145 volunteers turned out at our two cleanup sites at MLK Shoreline and Coyote Creek in San Jose. They picked up a total of 77 bags of trash before the deluge began. The storm provided a great teaching moment when a reporter from NBC Bay Area showed up to film a television segment. Allison Chan, our Clean Bay Campaign Manager, was able to talk on camera about the fact that stormwater runoff (most of which is trash) is actually the biggest pollution threat the Bay faces.

Coastal Cleanup Day is one day a year when millions of volunteers gather worldwide to pick up trash from beaches, shorelines, and creek sides. It’s a great way to raise awareness of the trash problem in our waterways. But I’m not sure the public gets the connection that the trash they pick up on Coastal Cleanup Day isn’t just from a few badly behaved beach goers, or people littering off of their boats. It comes from all of us. It blows out of garbage cans, gets dumped in gutters, and blows away during picnics. That’s why we at Save The Bay work with cities and counties to prevent the most commonly littered items from ending up in our gutters and the Bay in the first place. Cigarette butts, plastic bags, and Styrofoam food containers are some of the biggest offenders.

You can help prevent these items from entering the Bay, choking wetlands, harming water quality, and killing wildlife. Sign our petition telling tobacco companies to Keep their Butts out of our Bay, and support plastic bag and Styrofoam bans in your community. Is your city on the map?