Oakland Agrees to Fund More Trash Removal

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Save The Bay’s campaign to accelerate trash reduction has scored a major victory!

After a contentious month of budget hearings, the Oakland City Council approved a two-year budget at the end of June that includes significant new investments recommended by Save The Bay to keep trash off Oakland city streets and out of San Francisco Bay. Oakland funded two new cleanup crews to remove trash from illegal dumping sites and homeless encampments by adding $1.6 million to the budget, with another $150,000 for additional operations to clear stormwater-related trash from streets. The city also authorized installing full trash capture devices in storm drains through transportation and streetscape improvement projects funded by Measure KK. Voters approved that Oakland infrastructure bond endorsed by Save The Bay in 2016.

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.
  • Save The Bay is trusted by the news media and can generate good coverage of this issue – here is an excellent example.
  • Our technical expertise and good working relationship with the Regional Water Board staff positions us well as a credible voice on permit requirements and trash treatment options.
  • Even a small number of Save The Bay activists who show up to advocate with their local officials can have a big impact.

We’ll be working this summer and fall to help more cities keep trash out of the Bay.

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. 

The State of Trash in the Bay: Our 2016 Report

The size of the dots above correspond to the relative population of each city. Cities highlighted in green have already achieved the 70% trash reduction required by July 2017, while the cities highlighted in yellow, orange, and red are falling short of this milestone. Take time to hover over the map to see how much your city has reduced its trash problem.

The State of Trash in 2016: Mapping Bay Area Progress in Reducing Trash in Our Creeks

Trash flowing through stormwater systems and into the Bay is one of the most visible environmental problems plaguing the Bay Area. The abundance of trash drifting along our waterways spoils local shorelines, harms wildlife, and makes its way out to already polluted oceans. This is why, in 2010, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered 78 Bay Area cities and agencies to eliminate trash from their stormwater systems by July 1, 2022. They must also demonstrate progress toward this goal with a 70 percent reduction in trash from 2009 levels by July of this year, and an 80 percent reduction by July 2019.

Last year, we wrote about how this trash reduction effort is progressing, and we are back this year to give you an update on progress made in 2016.

As you can see from the maps above, there has been both progress and setbacks throughout the region. Comparing the 2015 and 2016 trash reduction maps, we see the largest improvements in a handful of communities including San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Contra Costa County, while little to no progress has occurred in many larger and resource-strapped cities, like those bordering the Bay in the East Bay. This regional inconsistency is concerning because cities with the worst trash problems often have the fewest resources to cope with them. This is why Save The Bay is calling upon state and local elected officials to secure funding for reducing trash in our cities and the Bay.

Many Cities Lack Resources and Are Falling Behind

In 2016, cities were asked to demonstrate a 60 percent reduction from 2009 levels in the amount of trash flowing from urban areas into storm drains. Unfortunately, out of the 78 Bay Area communities and agencies covered by the Regional Water Board’s trash requirements, 26 were not in compliance with the 2016 target. These 26 cities are now in danger of not achieving the 70 percent reduction in trash required by this July. To help these cities move forward, the Regional Water Board required each of them to put forward a plan to reach 70 percent. The plans vary from highly-detailed, multi-page reports like those submitted by the cities of Berkeley and Pittsburg, to brief outlines that barely address funding and implementation, like those submitted by Vallejo and Contra Costa County (covering the county’s unincorporated communities) .

Residents of the 26 out-of-compliance municipalities should be concerned about the lack of progress, not only from an environmental standpoint, but also from a legal one. Failure to reduce trash according to the Regional Water Board’s timeline could open cities up to costly penalties or even third-party lawsuits. This is why it is so important to implement effective strategies to reduce trash immediately.

Reducing Trash: What Works?

One of the most common strategies cities use to reduce stormwater trash is the installation of trash-capturing devices in key spots. Examples of these devices range from relatively small screens placed inside storm drains to giant, underground tanks that trap a large volume of trash while allowing water to flow through. Beyond trash-capture devices, street sweeping, neighborhood clean-ups, illegal dumping abatement programs, and providing more public trash bins are other popular approaches municipalities can take to reduce stormwater trash. The Regional Water Board also endorses bans on plastic bags and Styrofoam, and many Bay Area cities have adopted one or both as part of their trash-reduction strategy. Finally, although stopping trash before it reaches a creek is best option, the Regional Water Board encourages and offers incentives for creek and shoreline cleanups to reduce the negative impacts of the trash that does make its way into the watershed.

Despite the wide variety of potential trash-reduction strategies, cities face many significant obstacles. These include widespread illegal dumping, insufficient state and local funding, difficulties accurately measuring trash in stormwater systems, and the large amount of trash that flows from areas that cities don’t control, such as highways and private property.

Taking A Closer Look

Here’s a more detailed look at five very different Bay Area cities and the progress each has made in reducing trash in their communities. Hover over each of our digital maps to view the current (blue) or planned (green) locations of trash capturing devices throughout each city.

Richmond (Population 107,571)
Richmond claims a 27.3 percent reduction in 2016, compared to a 44 percent reduction in 2015. This sizable lapse over the last year means that Richmond has fallen further behind its target for stormwater trash by the July 2017 deadline. Fortunately, Richmond is further along in implementing its trash reduction plan than most cities. It has already developed a trial program to award small grants for neighborhood beautification, and executed a contract to install trash-capture devices throughout the city. But Richmond faces challenges, including securing adequate funding for stormwater projects and working with Caltrans and other agencies to address trash problems in areas where city maintenance workers don’t have easy access.

Oakland (Population 406,253)
Oakland claims a 44.6 percent reduction of stormwater trash in 2016, compared to a 47 percent reduction in 2015. Oakland’s plan to reach 70 percent reduction is well designed and varied, applying a mix of all of the trash-reduction strategies described above. Like Richmond, Oakland’s primary obstacle will be securing the funding necessary to implement its plan. But opportunities exist in the near future: The city is beginning its budget planning process, and Save The Bay is working to ensure that the City Council is well aware that city is falling behind on its trash reduction requirements. Also, Oakland voters passed Measure KK last November, a $600 million infrastructure bond which could help to pay for the trash capture devices, illegal dumping response program, and other strategies that city staff need to implement to reach the 70% reduction requirement.

San Jose (Population 998,537)
San Jose claims a 53.3 percent reduction in 2016, up from a 30 percent reduction in 2015. To reach 70 percent, San Jose is focusing nearly all its efforts into installing a number of large trash collecting devices in areas of the city most burdened by trash. In addition to trash originating on city streets, San Jose struggles with a serious homelessness problem; many of these individuals set up encampments along local rivers and creeks, resulting in the flow of large amounts of trash, bacteria, and other pollution into the Bay from these waterways. To truly achieve zero trash, the city will not only need to stop the flow of trash into storm drains, but will also need to implement multifaceted solutions to address homelessness and reduce the number of people living along city creeks.

San Mateo (Population 101,128)
San Mateo is claiming a 60 percent reduction in 2016, compared to 51 percent in 2015. It is nearly on track to achieve a 70 percent reduction in trash by July. San Mateo has approached its trash reduction requirements with a variety of strategies, including a robust community engagement effort called Team Up to Clean Up; responding promptly to illegal dumping reports; increasing enforcement of parking restrictions on street sweeping days; and installing 144 storm drain screens and other trash barriers.

In November, city staff estimated the cost of achieving 100 percent reduction in trash by 2022 at a hefty $11.2 million. This is a very important step in ensuring that San Mateo meets the requirements put forth by the Regional Water Board and that it does its part to keep trash out of the Bay. It is now the responsibility of the City Council to figure out where these funds will come from.

Walnut Creek (Population 66,900)
Walnut Creek is claiming a 93.7 percent reduction in 2016, compared to an 87 percent reduction in 2015. Unlike most cities throughout the Bay, where trash reduction strategies revolve primarily around installation of devices to capture trash, Walnut Creek focused on street sweeping, increased storm drain cleaning, downtown beautification projects, installation of more public trash bins, and anti-litter enforcement to achieve its estimated reduction. If the city can maintain this progress, Walnut Creek is shaping up to be an early model for achieving zero trash.

Where We Go From Here
Although we have seen areas of significant progress in reducing stormwater trash since the Water Board implemented its zero trash requirement, it is clear from the maps above that the Bay Area still has a long way to go. Save The Bay will continue to work with local communities and the Regional Water Board to ensure 100 percent stormwater trash reduction is achieved by 2022, but we need your help.

Take time to organize or volunteer for neighborhood cleanups, urge your local officials to prioritize stormwater projects, and stay tuned for other opportunities to take action.

I’m Choosing People Over Politics

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As we witness the official upheaval of our country’s leadership, I am ready to collaborate with anyone who, regardless of their political views, are trying to do the right thing for people, communities, and our natural resources.

Like many of us, on the night of the election I cried.

I cried for women, for immigrants, for people who have been wronged by a racially-biased justice system, for the unemployed, for the LGBTQ community, and for our environment. I cried for the daughter I’m about to bring into the world, that the society she will be born into is one in which you can mock, ridicule, and verbally abuse people on national television and still win a presidential election.

So I stuck my head in the sand. I barely opened Facebook for weeks (gasp). I limited most of my online interaction to looking at people’s vacation and holiday photos. But in this virtual absence I did a lot of thinking. Certainly we have more power than we think—even in the election aftermath people across the country successfully demanded justice and change in their communities. We may have not been able to stop the inauguration or these asinine cabinet appointments, but starting today we can respond by being strategic, creative, and collaborative. And honestly, if you live in California, you have an obligation to keep your head up and show that change is possible, no matter who’s in the Oval Office.

“We may have not been able to stop the inauguration or these asinine cabinet appointments, but starting today we can respond by being strategic, creative, and collaborative.”

 

In the Bay Area, we’re in a double bubble: we have many local elected officials who are committed to ensuring safe and equitable communities where our natural environment will thrive, while our state legislators have vowed to resist any attempts by the administration to reverse the social, economic, and environmental progress we have made in our state and country. If we don’t take advantage of our favorable political circumstances here in California, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

As we witness the official upheaval of our country’s leadership, I’ve decided I’m ready to take my head out of the sand. I’m ready to do my part to ensure that the new administration is held accountable for any poor judgment and negligence that it demonstrates. I’m also ready to collaborate with anyone who, regardless of their political views, is trying to do the right thing for people, communities, and our natural resources.

That’s what really matters, and we must believe in our collective ability to succeed.

The Zero-Trash K9

Bigges the litter-retrieving Australian Shepherd.
Bigges the litter-retrieving Australian Shepherd.

Three years ago, Diane Petersen was hiking up the well-worn trail of Mission Peak Regional Preserve in Fremont. Accompanying her was her dog Bigges, a two-year-old Australian shepherd.

Bigges was a relative newcomer to the idea of trekking up peaks, and was, by Petersen’s recounting, “kind of bored by hiking.” To make matters worse, his elder companion, the border collie Josie, was not present. Nevertheless, Bigges walked on, all the while wishing that the hike were over. Then Petersen threw a rock at the slope to her right, and Bigges’ life changed forever.

Today, Bigges is a celebrity in the East Bay Regional Park District. He was the subject of one of EBRPD’s most popular Facebook posts. In May, Bigges and Petersen were honored by the Park District Board for their service to our open spaces. The beloved pooch followed that up with a cover appearance and story in the 2016 summer issue of “Compass,” the official magazine for EBRPD’s members. And almost every day, hikers in Mission Peak, the Alameda Creek Trail, Coyote Hills, and many other East Bay parks get to witness his inspirational feats, and invariably burst into applause.

What does Bigges do to garner such recognition? Simple. He leaves no trace, cleans up our parks, and has a blast while doing it.

Bigges, quite by accident, has been trained to pick up plastic water bottles discarded in creeks, crevices, hills, and valleys in our regional parks.

When he was teething, Petersen gave him plastic bottles to chew onto distract him from chewing on her shoes and furniture. Tugging on them soon became his favorite pastime, and today, picking up discarded plastic bottles is still second nature to him.

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Bigges playing a uniquely helpful game of fetch.

So when Petersen throws a rock at a plastic bottle, he runs over and grabs it. “It’s hard to stop him,” said Petersen. “Whenever he sees a water bottle he’ll go out and grab it.” Further training that channeled Bigges’ love of food now motivates him to give Petersen the plastic bottle in exchange for a yummy treat.

“He loves it,” said Petersen. “He thinks it’s great fun. He has a blast.”

Instead of ignoring this ability, or maybe even making Bigges unlearn it, Petersen decided to utilize it in an all-out effort to clean up our open spaces. Even before she had dogs, Petersen did her part to pick up litter and leave no trace. Now, she and Bigges visit Mission Peak, Garin Regional Park, and many of the other trash-filled parks and preserves in the East Bay, seven days a week. The duo always finds something to clean up. They also unvaryingly find tons of appreciation from fellow hikers.

“A lot of times when people see him they clap and seem amazed and go ‘What a good dog!’” said Petersen.  “And I say, ‘yeah, he’s trying to keep the trails clean.’”

In March, EBRPD noticed Bigges when Petersen made some suggestions to the District for a possible bottle exchange program, and included some pictures of the dog in her message. The District, inspired by the photos, asked Petersen if they could feature Bigges in a Facebook post. She assented, and the overwhelming response to the post led to the District promoting Bigges’ story even further. In May, Board President Doug Siden gave Petersen and Bigges a certificate of appreciation; Bigges was also recognized as a Leave No Trace superhero and given a dog-sized cape. He’s also an unofficial celebrity amongst frequent hikers in the East Bay.

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Bigges’ trash haul.

But Petersen isn’t letting Bigges’ sudden fame distract from the true prize: a trash-free Bay.

“It just feels like the Bay Area is pretty darn trashy,” she sighs. “And I know it’s hard on all kinds of species that live out there, the fishermen that go out there, all kinds of different things out in the Bay.”

She pauses. “There’s just so much trash.”

And although committed individuals like Petersen and Bigges are doing all they can, the Bay won’t get cleaned until we all help out.

That’s why Petersen hopes that Bigges’ story will inspire us to go out and clean up after ourselves.

“I feel there are a lot of humans out there who believe we’re the mightiest creatures of all, and my thinking is that if a dog can help keep this place as beautiful as it once was – I feel that if a dog can pick up trash, we humans can do the same thing,” said Petersen.

“I walk along the Alameda Creek, Hayward Shoreline, Coyote Hills, and when it’s low tide, I can just see the trash and I know it’s bad for the animals that live there, for the shorebirds, for the fish, and for our animals – our dogs that swim out in the Bay.

“I know that’s not a good thing, so Bigges and I are doing our part, and I just hope that we can lead by example, and that if everyone pitches in, our parks in the Bay Area will remain beautiful. We get to use these places for free, and what they give us for our physical wellbeing and mental wellbeing is priceless. And the least we can do is try to give back, do our part, and keep it as beautiful as we found it.”

Petersen and Bigges are working hard, but they can’t rid the Bay of trash alone. Help them today.


Pledge your support for a trash-free SF Bay.