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.

Vote Bay Smart: investing in green infrastructure benefits SF Bay

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Potholes and cracked streets are a challenge 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.

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.

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Our stormwater system of pipes and channels carry rainwater polluted with trash, oil, pesticides, and other toxins directly into our creeks and into the Bay.

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.

One option involves constructing solutions that mimic nature, allowing polluted water to filter through plants and soil (such as rain gardens and bioswales) before flowing to the Bay. This green infrastructure is not only a solution for stormwater pollution, it also reduces local temperatures on hot days (saving energy money on air conditioning), and creates pleasant new urban green space that encourages people to walk or bike instead of using cars. Expanded urban greening like this has even been shown to reduce crime.

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Oakland’s Measure KK and Berkeley’s Measure T1 invest in street and stormwater infrastructure improvements.

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.

Mapping a path to zero trash


Ever since trash was first regulated as a pollutant in the San Francisco Bay in 2009, cities have been trying to eliminate trash from their storm water systems. Now, 6 years into that process, we have gathered some data on their progress and created this map to see what progress towards zero trash looks like around the region.

Every city that is subject to the storm water permit must completely eliminate trash from its storm water by 2022. Cities on this map are shown as dots, the size and color of the dot represent how much progress that city has made towards zero trash. The smaller and greener the dot, the more progress they have made; cities indicated by large red or orange dots have a long way to go. The map represents how far a city has gone to reduce the trash flowing through its storm water system – for example, Oakland has reduced trash by 47% — not the actual amount of trash each city is contributing to the Bay.

You may be wondering why some communities, notably the city of San Francisco and most of the North Bay, are absent from this map. The reason is that those cities are not covered by the storm water permit. Smaller cities like those in the North Bay have a separate permit with a different timeline to reduce trash and San Francisco, unlike the rest of the region, operates a Combined Storm Sewer System where storm water is treated along with sewage.

All of our data is gleaned from reports each city files with the Regional Water Board on their storm water systems. Although these reports are a crucial resource for us, all of the data is entirely self-reported and we do not have a high degree of confidence that detailed on-the-ground observations support the data in all of these reports.  However, for the sake of clarity and ease of assessment, for our map we took the reductions claimed by each city in their storm water reports at face value.

Some cities are making good progress

Some cities that are doing a truly remarkable job are Walnut Creek and Sunnyvale. These cities have taken steps to install storm drain units that filter trash out of the water before it gets into the creeks in most of their very trashy areas.

Oakland faces problems that are unique in the region but has risen to the challenge, more proactively dealing with illegal dumping and increasing street sweeping activities, as well as installing trash capture devices. Another city that has done an impressive job is Richmond, which has a hugely successful block by block neighborhood beautification and cleanup program.

Trash capture units are expensive, and most cities are struggling to find ways to pay for them. But they may be the only way to comply with this permit and eliminate trash from storm water systems that drain directly to the Bay.

Most cities have a long way to go

Many cities that appear in yellow, like Berkeley, Oakland, South San Francisco and Richmond are actually in compliance with the permit, they managed to reduce their trash by 40% by 2014, however because the timeline for reductions is so tight and these cities need to reach a 70% reduction by 2017, there is serious uncertainty about how these cities will be able to keep up with increasing reductions. These cities need to find the resources to clean up more of their trash.

Some cities where we see big problems are Concord, Pittsburg, San Jose, and San Leandro. These cities have not yet made significant advances towards achieving zero trash, and that is a cause for concern. The next benchmark is a 70% reduction by 2017, and these cities have failed to meet the 40% requirement by 2015; they are in very serious danger of failing to meet the mandated standards. The Regional Water Board ought to be working with these cities already to help them avoid non-compliance, and to encourage local leaders to prioritize their storm water pollution.

Why did we make this map?

This map is the best visual representation of the region’s progress towards zero trash.

As I mentioned above, the map shows progress towards zero trash, rather than how much trash each city contributes to the Bay. If we had shown how much trash each city contributes to the bay, the map would show us what we already know – that larger, more urban cities generate more trash.

What we want to show is regional progress; as you can see on the map, the Bay is literally ringed with trash, and it is the responsibility of every city in the region to take the steps necessary to eliminate trash from its storm water system by 2022.

Call on your city to get to zero trash – Click here to take action.

Harnessing natural systems for a better Bay

Newcomb @ Phelps Streets, catch basins, rain gardens, curbs, permeable pavers, plants, wet weather, bulb outs,
This rain garden in San Francisco helps absorb stormwater and brings more greenery to the corner of Newcomb and Phelps streets. Photo: SFPUC

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.

On a stronger path to Zero Trash

Stormwater pollution

On November 19, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board approved a stronger set of regulations for protecting water quality in our creeks and the Bay. The Municipal Regional Stormwater Permit regulates the untreated water that flows through the storm drains of Bay Area cities. This permit is one of our best tools for preventing the flow of trash from city streets into the Bay.

Trash in stormwater has been regulated since 2009 

In the Bay Area, trash has only been regulated as a pollutant in stormwater since 2009, when the Water Board adopted the first stormwater permit. The landmark 2009 permit established a timeline for cities to reduce trash in their stormwater system by 40% from 2009 levels by 2014, 70% by 2017, and a full 100% by 2022. As a part of this process, cities were required to evaluate their jurisdictions and made maps indicating how much trash is generated in each part of the city, and were required to identify and remedy trash hot spots, or creek and Bay shoreline locations where trash accumulates.

The 2009 regulations came about as a direct result of intense advocacy on the part of Save The Bay, our supporters, and other regional organizations. Bay Area cities have now had more than five years to develop and implement plans to keep trash out of their stormwater. Now that the Water Board has adopted a stronger policy, we have an opportunity to reflect on the challenges and successes of the last five years in order to chart a more productive path towards Zero Trash.

How have we done so far? 

Progress towards the stormwater permit’s zero trash requirement has been inconsistent, and it is unlikely that our region achieved the first milestone in the permit—a 40% reduction in trash by July 2014. While cities have implemented a variety of solutions, many trash problems remain. The City of Oakland, for example, beefed up their capacity to respond to illegal dumping —a major source of trash in the city. Their program removed over 34,000 cubic yards of illegally dumped trash in the last year, preventing a huge amount of trash from flowing in to storm drains and out to the Bay. However, a solution to the persistent trash problem in downtown Oakland remains elusive, which means trash from this area continues to flow into local waterways on a regular basis.

Cities are still struggling with monitoring programs to track their progress towards zero trash. Without adequate data it is impossible to say if the region is on track to achieve zero trash or if our cities need to implement more effective solutions. The City of Vallejo claims to have cut trash in half, but provides little data demonstrating that their trash reduction efforts are working. Meanwhile, the city still has hundreds of acres of trashy area to address over the next few years. An ongoing challenge will be to balance cities’ efforts to remove trash from their creeks with the need to prevent trash from reaching creeks in the first place. Actions to prevent trash from entering storm drains should be prioritized, but we also want to encourage cleanup efforts to prevent creek trash from flowing into the Bay and threatening wildlife.

Despite the challenges we face on the way to achieving the zero trash goal, the original timeline of zero trash by 2022 still stands. It’s important that the cities and citizens of the Bay Area take this goal seriously, as delays in reducing trash levels will only have damaging impacts on the health of the San Francisco Bay.

The New Permit and Next Steps 

Save The Bay advocated for many improvements to the stormwater permit based on the last five years of successes and challenges. The version adopted this week is a stronger step towards zero trash.

The new permit includes an additional benchmark for trash reduction, which requires cities to demonstrate an 80% reduction in trash by 2019. It also includes a provision for cities to establish monitoring programs in their creeks—in addition to their urban areas—so they can see how much of an effect their efforts at on-land cleanup have had on the creeks themselves.

The revised permit will still require zero trash by 2022. Eliminating trash flows to the Bay over the next 7 years is a big goal, but one that is frankly long overdue. We want the Bay Area to be a leader in eliminating stormwater pollution, and the new stormwater permit will help to ensure we achieve this goal.

With stronger regulations in place, Save The Bay will be working closely with local cities to ensure that we meet these ambitious goals. It’s going to take all of us. If you haven’t already, sign the Zero Trash Pledge and we’ll keep you updated about how to make sure that our region gets to zero trash.