Update: Water Board Agrees To Explore Trash Enforcement

At the Regional Water Board’s March 14th meeting, our Executive Director, David Lewis, addressed the Board and told them that over 3,000 Save The Bay supporters (and growing!) are calling upon them to take enforcement action against Caltrans for allowing trash to flow unabated into local creeks and the Bay. Good news: the Board did not hesitate: Chair Terry Young asked staff to compile information about enforcement options and present them to the Board this summer. While this is a promising step forward, we need to keep the pressure on. Sign our petition today and share with a friend!

The Board also expressed concern about the cities and counties that failed to meet the 70 percent stormwater trash reduction requirement last year, some of whom are years behind schedule and continue to allow toxic levels of trash to flow into storm drains and out to the Bay. The Board asked staff to explore enforcement options for these entities as well, including immediate installation of trash capture devices in storm drains and proof that funding for trash abatement has been secured.

We will keep you updated on progress toward Zero Trash in the Bay. Thank you for your support!

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.

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.

Water Board stays strong on trash in 2014

Trash from our city streets flow into storm drains, which empty directly into the Bay.
Trash from our city streets flow into storm drains, which empty directly into the Bay. Photo: Samantha Marx

Happy 2014!  We have a lot to look forward to this year at Save The Bay, including a big milestone in the regional effort to keep trash out of our waterways: by July, cities and counties must show that they have reduced the amount of trash flowing into their storm drains by 40 percent.  As we neared the end of 2013, some questions around this requirement remained — How will we know if cities have achieved a 40 percent reduction?  What information are they required to make public?  Will the SF Bay Water Board allow cities extra time to comply?

At their December meeting, the Water Board addressed these questions with a clear message to cities: stick with the timeline and show us data confirming that you are reducing trash.  Over the past three years, several jurisdictions have made strong efforts to prevent trash from flowing into the Bay, including San Mateo County’s nearly countywide plastic bag ban, San Jose’s Clean Creeks, Healthy Communities project, and the installation of hundreds of full trash capture devices in storm drains throughout the region.  But some municipalities are falling dangerously behind this standard, hiding behind vaguely defined actions and sharing very little data. Whether they have already implemented programs or are dragging their feet, Bay Area cities and counties have until July to achieve major trash reductions.

And for those of us who like numbers, they will be available – the Water Board is requiring cities and counties to monitor their curbs, creeks, and storm drains and submit data demonstrating that their efforts are having a significant impact on trash.  Are trash capture devices in the best locations?  Are street sweepers catching everything?  Have illegal dumping sites been addressed?  Are trash haulers effectively securing their loads?  We look forward to this “progress report” on trash reduction in the Bay Area.

But what we’re really excited about is that by mid-summer, there should be noticeably less trash in our creeks, along the shoreline, and in the Bay.

Have you already seen improvements in your community?  Leave a comment and tell us about it.

Guess Who’s Coming Back to the Bay!

I’m always stunned by what I find in my own backyard. Living near and commuting across the Bay, I keep stumbling on local treasures — an amazing view of the harbor from Noe Valley, or the Bay Bridge shimmering against the bright lights of rush hour traffic. I’m also discovering that I share a home with some surprising creatures- buffalo in Golden Gate Park, parrots in North Beach, even a river otter in the Sutro Baths.

But most surprising of all to me are the creatures that made their home here before I ever did, disappeared during World War II, stayed away for decades, and then one day, showed up under the Golden Gate Bridge.

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San Francisco Bay was once home to harbor porpoises, where they dwelt happily for hundreds of years. But in the early 1940s, they fled the Bay, which had become too dangerous and polluted to call home. Since then, a whole generation of Bay Area folks has grown up here, never knowing that porpoises once lived, played, and thrived right in their backyard. Now, more than 70 years later, they’re coming back. 

Why, after all this time, are they returning? Early signs point to better water quality and the overall health of the Bay as the most important factor. So far, nearly 300 porpoises have been spotted under the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, one of their favorite spots for fishing… and mating.

It’s exciting to think that these porpoises may be the first of many harbor porpoises that make their home in the San Francisco Bay.  But the truth is, this is a small and delicate start. There’s still much to be done to improve the water quality of the Bay. If many of us still don’t want to swim in and fish in it, why would a large mammal, sitting at the top of the food chain?

That’s why we’re asking the San Francisco Water Board to help us clean up the Bay, by standing up to the major corporations- like C&H Sugar and Tesoro Refining- who are polluting our backyard and endangering these porpoises. If you want to see even more porpoises coming home to the Bay, tell the San Francisco Regional Water Board to stand up to polluters right now. Better yet, spread the word. Help us reach our goal of 5,000 signatures by Earth Day (April 22nd).

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The Bay is such a big part of what makes living here special- why we’re some of the happiest people on the planet. But after suffering years of pollution, shoreline encroachment, and neglect, the Bay is not in the shape it used to be in. And that’s why we’ve launched For The Bay: to bring people like you and me together to reclaim the treasure of our region, the San Francisco Bay –our backyard, our playground, home to diverse creatures, like the harbor porpoises.