The City Council was poised to add another $350,000 for one-time costs to onboard the new cleanup crews, but deferred consideration until later this year because of a procedural hurdle. Now the challenge will be to implement these measures quickly and remove street trash that will otherwise end up in creeks and the Bay, especially as rains return this autumn.
For Oakland to demonstrate its trash reduction schedule alignment with the Regional Water Quality Control Board’s requirement, the city will have to hire and deploy the new clean-up crews, and document how much more trash they are removing. The city also needs to specify how many trash capture devices will be installed in high-trash generating areas and how soon. In September, Oakland will have to report to the Water Board whether it is close to achieving the goal of 70 percent reduction in trash below 2009 levels, or face enforcement action that could include penalties. We’ll be assessing that report along with other Bay Area cities.
How did we make trash cleanup a bigger priority in Oakland? Our community allies provided crucial support for inclusion of these trash reduction measures in the budget, especially Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), SEIU Local 1021, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE). These groups have been working for years to reduce blight, improve public health, and increase quality of life for residents and working in Oakland neighborhoods.
With broad backing, our recommendations ultimately were incorporated into both the Oakland City Council President’s Budget supported by Mayor Schaaf – backed by Councilmembers Reid, Guillen, Gibson McElhaney, Campbell Washington, and Kalb – and the People’s Budget backed by Councilmembers Brooks, Kaplan, and Gallo.
This outpouring of support and the council’s positive response show again that Bay Area residents love San Francisco Bay, and want cities to make the Bay clean and healthy for everyone who lives here.
While each city’s process and politics are different, we learned a lot from Oakland that will guide our efforts with other cities that are not meeting the regional stormwater permit limits on trash flowing to the Bay:
Local alliances are crucial for effective grassroots pressure and direct lobbying, especially when we team with partners from beyond the traditional environmental realm.
Bay Area residents are well-acquainted with the region’s critical need for better public transit and affordable housing, but our streets and our stormwater infrastructure are also badly in disrepair, and contribute greatly to the runoff of trash and toxic pollutants into San Francisco Bay.
Potholes and cracked streets are a huge liability for cities. For example, Oakland’s potholed streets are among the worst in the region, ranked 89 out of 109 Bay Area cities. They cause serious damage to peoples’ cars and create serious costs for the city. They also are harder for street sweepers to clean, causing trash and other pollution to be left behind, where they wait to flow straight into the Bay the next time it rains.
We’ve written before (here and here) about the stormwater system of pipes and channels that carry rainwater polluted with trash, oil, pesticides, and other toxins directly into our creeks and into the Bay. Unless we invest in stormwater infrastructure improvements that remove pollution from rainwater before it flows into our creeks, or capture and treat it for drinking water or irrigation, this serious threat to the health of the Bay will only worsen.
The good news is there are opportunities on the November ballot for Oakland and Berkeley residents to secure the much-needed funding for street and stormwater infrastructure improvements.
In Oakland, Measure KK is a $600 million bond that would fund investments in Oakland’s roads, community facilities, and housing. About $350 million would go toward repaving and repairing streets and sidewalks and improving bicycle safety; some of these improvements are likely to include green infrastructure. Additionally, $100 million would be invested in acquiring, preserving, and building affordable homes, and $150 million would go toward improving libraries, parks, public safety buildings, and fire stations.
Berkeley’s Measure T1 is a $100 million bond for improvements to streets and sidewalks, storm drains, parks and recreation centers, and the city’s public buildings, with an explicit emphasis on the utilization of green infrastructure. Check out our Bay Smart Voter Guide for more detailed information about these measures.
We’ve put off investing in our roads and stormwater infrastructure for a long time, so the price tag has grown, and it will continue to grow unless we act now. The Bay Area’s booming population will only place more stress on our roads and create more polluted runoff. Be a part of the solution by voting “Yes” on measures KK and T1 in support of investing in our city infrastructure, for the health of our communities and the health of the Bay.
Nate Kauffman is a landscape architect from the East Bay. He is he founder of LEAP (The Live Edge Adaptation Project). He is also an award-winning teacher, consultant and trouble-maker extraordinaire. He is an instructor in graduate landscape architecture studios at UC Berkeley and teaches a design-build summer studio, URBANFRAME, at MIT’s School of Architecture. He is the Project Director for Owlized, a tech startup committed to helping the public discover deeper understandings of their environments. He was contracted to produce visualizations of the Horizontal Levee and helped describe them at the Treatment Plant, in a public outreach event last November.
Horst Rittel, former architecture Professor at University of California, Berkeley is perhaps best known for his description of a particular brand of planning and social policy challenge. He termed these ‘Wicked Problems’ for their vexing interplay of conditions and contingencies; their interdependencies obfuscating clear solutions; and their tendency to require stakeholders with different world views and values to cooperate in order to solve them.
In the context of global climate change and the common call for local approaches for addressing and adapting to it, Wicked Problems entail another, critical dimension: their tendency to induce an effect often referred to as analysis paralysis. The already-branded ‘climate paralysis’ is essentially described by the condition of spending so much time trying to figure out what to do (and to raise and rally support for it) that actually doing so happens too late to be effective.
Professionals the world over are earnestly contemplating this apparent fact of the human condition, writ very large on the face of a changing planet. As the globe is pushed toward unknown planetary boundaries — the physical balances in the chemistry of the water, atmosphere and soils that literally give us life — the need for scalable, replicable and sustainable applications for climate adaptation is dire.
Innovative solutions for shoreline resilience
I was brought into the Oro Loma Sanitary District’s Horizontal Levee project last year to help envision the reality of this green infrastructure approach on a local and regional level. As a landscape architect, consultant and visualization specialist, I am generally tasked with articulating an argument in visual terms: making the case for a given proposal or project. Jason Warner, Oro Loma’s General Manager, was earnestly interested in how to convey and capture a sense of what the Horizontal Levee would represent for the communities adjacent to it. Aside from his efforts quarterbacking the Horizontal Levee endeavor in general, Jason’s commitment to understanding its benefits for the societies that might invest in these kinds of green infrastructures was inspiring. SFEI’s Jeremy Lowe helped me understand the extensive benefits and actual mechanics of the approach. And what was so compelling about the Horizontal Levee itself was how much a common-sense solution to an emergent problem could actually deliver to the societies that need it most.
Projects, policies and partnerships that successfully reimagine our built environment for multiple socio-ecologic benefits are exceedingly rare in the world of executed work. The design field’s positively brim with fanciful notions of pseudo-sci-fi futurisms: imagining Utopian societies founded on as-yet-undiscovered ways of building and development that are inexplicably and seemingly effortlessly also conducive to environmental health and ecologic stability. One of the primary reasons so many of these speculative projects fail to actually gain traction is that their underpinnings are grounded in unrealistic or unsustainable resource use models and approaches.
Restoration for climate change adaptation
Oro Loma’s Horizontal Levee project is a major pivot in this respect: it essentially represents a return to a Bayshore more physically similar to that which predated the development, Bay fill and sprawl of the 19th and 20th century (that has so badly positioned us to adapt to a rising Bay). It also closes loops on wasteful resource cycles. And it is hardly rocket science: it takes an abundant byproduct of our society (polished wastewater) and uses it to bind what is free (air, sunshine and opportunistic wildlife) with what is cheap (sediment and plants). The result is an engine driven by the discreet application of this wastewater to trigger a cascade of growth and production. And all of this happens so that a relatively simple landform intervention-based approach to flood protection can be made sustainable and affordable.
The Horizontal Levee (a pilot project whose six-month construction took over four years to permit), must prove that it’s environmental impacts are not detrimental to the broader health of the SF Bay’s various and interwoven ecosystems, nor the humans who interface with them. Before broader deployment of the technology can proceed, the proof-of-concept must be deemed “safe”. In some sense that is the bad news, but the good is that the precedent it may become could have far-reaching application potential, and even global implications for shoreline societies.
I will tell you a secret: The Horizontal Levee works. The project will validate the hypothesis driving this experiment. The reason we are collectively holding our breath to see what the effect of this critical lynchpin might represent for regional resilience has more to do with its reception, not its efficacy. The commensurate questions abound: How will we find the funding to scale up this approach? How will the rat’s nest of overlapping and competing agencies untangle itself to streamline permitting to put projects into practice? And who shall emerge as champions for a low-tech, multiple-benefit network intended to buffer our built environment from the impacts of a rapidly changing natural one?
From a planning and policy perspective, there are innumerable decisions to be made regarding what we build and choose not to (and where); what to repair or abandon, (and when); what to protect and what to attempt to prevent from happening (and how). These questions entail considerations of the fundamental economics of our built and natural environments and the consequences of their inevitable collisions and potential coexistences.
New modes of infrastructure
Infrastructure projects are notoriously expensive, for all kinds of reasons. Adapting 20 miles of the soon-to-be sub-sea level Highway 37 linking Vallejo and Novato will allegedly cost five billion dollars. That’s the equivalent of every human on earth throwing in seventy-five cents. At some point, a distinction between the cost and value of problems and projects like Highway 37 will need to be assessed.
Oro Loma’s Horizontal Levee experiment could represent a chance to make the case for a new mode of infrastructure: in its design, resource paradigms, multi-functionality, sustainability and requisite funding models. More than anything, because what it seeks to do is actually reconnect, reestablish and rebuild systems that sustain and even repair themselves, the Horizontal Levee project is a re-imagining of what investment truly means in the modern era’s climate adaptation discourses.
What we cannot lose sight of in this process is that, for all of the economic realities wound up and built into sweeping, regional green infrastructure deployments, this challenge transcends even the broadest definition of economics. Because climate change is inextricably and inexorably tied to the passage of time, the challenge is fundamentally an ethical one. Accepting that future societies, inheriting the legacy of our inactions, will find themselves armed simultaneously with fewer options in their menu, and worse ones at that, is a stark reality with which to grapple.
Oro Loma offers a glimmer of hope in this sea of societal uncertainty, historic intransigence and cultural inertia. Aside from the impressiveness of the trans-disciplinary team that actually got this project done, it is also notable in that it attracts interest and attention from taxpayers and politicians alike. There is no panacea for climate adaptation, nor a silver bullet for coastal planning in the era of rising seas and worsening storms. We cannot wait for those solutions to suddenly coalesce.
Something to be done
In the opening scene of Samuel Beckett’s 1953 play, Waiting for Godot, Estragon removes his boots to wait with his counterpart for the title character, who ultimately fails to show. “Nothing to be done,” Estragon laments, kicking off an absurdist masterpiece of human existentialism. The play is a meditation on the arrival of a grand apparition, though nothing ultimately “happens”.
The plight and peril of the Bay Area, and its collective response thus-far to the complete remaking of its 1,000 miles of shoreline threatened by a rising Bay, has something of an absurd air to it: the global epicenter of innovation fumbling around for the political will, funding and proactive spirit to tackle its very own existential crisis. The upcoming measure AA, a $12 parcel tax arriving on June’s ballot, arguably represents the most profound gesture our region has made toward ecologically-based sustainability in a generation. It will be a crucial litmus test of the common awareness of and will to play a part in the direction of our very society. And as far as something “happening” to spur action in The Bay, we won’t get hit by a catastrophic Nor’Easter or Hurricane (à la Sandy), nor a hundreds-of-millions-of-gallons oil spill (à la Deepwater Horizon) to galvanize responses to our estuary’s shoreline vulnerabilities. The slow burn of a rising Bay is apparently thus far an easy disaster for us to ignore and avoid.
The Horizontal Levee is our proverbial ‘something’ to be done. Insofar as the broader Bay Area planning and policy circles are casting around for an application that possesses profound potential for regional replicability, there are few projects as promising on the horizon. And, more importantly, the Horizontal Levee approach is not mutually exclusive to many other green infrastructure concepts. It actually strengthens and is strengthened by complementary living systems that are more sustainable, economically feasible and ecologically viable than the catalog of coastal and shoreline engineering approaches we turned to in the era before acknowledgment of a changing planet.
We are well into a rainy winter here in the Bay Area, and that means a lot of things — flash floods, erosion, and inconvenient bicycle commutes — but it also means pollution. The rain that falls on city streets, sidewalks and parking lots flows to storm drains and into the Bay, picking up pollutants like PCBs and mercury along the way. Additionally, many of our stormwater systems are aging and unable to deal with the heavy flows that come from larger storms. Over the last century we have paved over an ever greater portion of the Bay Area’s landscape. More and more water flows down the storm drain instead of being taken up by plants or filtering into the ground.
Cities around the region are beginning to adopt techniques that mimic the function of natural landscapes to help manage their stormwater loads. These systems are called “green infrastructure” because they use natural processes to move and manage stormwater, as opposed to conventional, gray infrastructure systems, where water is immediately diverted through pipes and drains.
Green infrastructure seeks to slow, capture, filter, or absorb water before it flows down a drain. Three of the most common techniques are:
Rain gardens (bioinfiltration) are depressions filled with plants that can help take up water, reducing how much goes into the sewer system and the amount of pollution in the water. Rain gardens can be exceptionally beautiful, but require a relatively large and flat site.
Permeable pavement is used to convert parking lots, walkways, and other light-use paved surfaces from impermeable surfaces to surfaces where water is able to filter through soil and gravel below.
Bioswales are gently-sloped, vegetated landscapes that allow water to flow through them and filter out pollutants and silt before water enters storm drains.
Regional Stormwater Permit Mandates Green Infrastructure
Cities are growing increasingly interested in using this technology in part because the regional stormwater permit requires cities to use these techniques to reduce the amount of mercury and PCB that flows into the Bay from urban runoff. The regional permit encourages cities to reduce water repellant surfaces and maximize vegetated surfaces that will absorb stormwater, rather than letting it run to the Bay. The plants and soil will filter out toxic mercury and PCBs in what will ultimately be a more resilient and sustainable system.
Green Infrastructure in Action
Regulations aside, the flexibility of green infrastructure means that it can suit needs as diverse as those of our cities. In San Francisco where large storms overwhelm an antique sewer system and flooding is a concern, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has begun to install green infrastructure sites throughout the city as a part of their 20 year, 6 billion dollar Sewer System Improvement Program.
These sites are intended to slow the flow of water during major storm events. San Francisco’s sewer system treats both wastewater and stormwater together (systems that are separate in other Bay Area cities). When the combined system is overwhelmed, some of the water must be released without being fully treated.
Planners are also taking advantage of green infrastructure’s aesthetic appeal to reimagine streets as both less burdensome on water management infrastructure, but also more pedestrian and bicycle friendly, more livable, and more beautiful. At sites such as the Newcomb Avenue Green Street in the Bayview Neighborhood of San Francisco, green stormwater management is being installed in concert with streetscape improvements and traffic calming techniques. In addition to creating a more pleasant and resilient urban environment, peak flows of rainwater to the sewer at this site were reduced by more than 75%.
In San Jose where there is a housing shortage and lack of densely developed areas, the city’s plan is to develop urban villages in which public streetscape improvements accompany private mixed use development. San Jose plans to curb the amount of mercury and PCBs it releases into the bay by treating more of its stormwater through green infrastructure projects at these kinds of sites.
In the East Bay, the cities of Oakland, Emeryville, Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito, Richmond, and San Pablo are working with the San Francisco Estuary Partnership and Caltrans on a project called the San Pablo Green Stormwater Spine. They plan to install rain gardens, stormwater planters, and other low impact development projects to filter polluted runoff and to calm traffic and provide greenery along San Pablo Avenue. These projects have not broken ground yet, but once complete they will treat runoff from more than 4 acres of impervious surface and help beautify and calm traffic along a major thoroughfare.
What Can We Expect to See?
As stronger storms, rising sea levels, and increasing development put more and more strain on our aging systems, the challenges of stormwater management will grow. Green infrastructure can help solve these problems by slowing down and cleaning water before it flows into storm drains and out into the Bay. Furthermore, green infrastructure mimics the processes of nature and benefits communities by minimizing the urban heat-island effect, calming traffic and beautifying our streets.
We need our cities to move forward with these kinds of projects now; our limitations of our gray infrastructure are real and green infrastructure technology is proven and available.
As the Bay Area experiences rapid urban growth and population expansion, investments in green infrastructure will be vital to minimize the negative impacts that development has on the quality of the Bay. Stay tuned to learn more about green stormwater management and how we can help the Bay Area better minimize polluted runoff.