California cities have spent millions to keep trash out of San Francisco Bay. Regulators say it’s not enough

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Whenever a storm hits the Bay Area, litter on area streets and streams is swept away by water rushing into an underground storm drain system, where much of the litter s flows through a network of pipes until it reaches San Francisco Bay.

The waste can linger in the bay or in smaller water bodies for thousands of years, contributing to widespread pollution that threatens wildlife and degrades the health of local environments and communities. Conservationists say that while it’s difficult to estimate how much trash makes its way into the bay each year, and different cities generate varying amounts of trash, it’s clear that trash pollution is a persistent problem.

Bay Area cities have spent tens of millions of dollars over the past decade to address the problem and say they have made substantial progress. But state regulators say cities haven’t done enough and last month approved new regulations requiring them to eliminate virtually all waste from their stormwater systems within three years.

The dispute pits the leaders of some of the region’s largest communities, including Oakland and San Jose, against the San Francisco Bay Area Water Quality Board, whose members are appointed by the governor and work within the California Environmental Protection Agency to set and enforce regulations for the nine-county Bay Area. The council says the new guidelines are needed to clean up the bay, but cities say they are cumbersome, expensive and overly ambitious.

Oakland officials said meeting the new guidelines would require the city to install up to 4,000 new cesspools under city streets — up from just over 200 currently installed in areas with the most street litter. – at a cost of up to $7. million plus annual maintenance costs of up to $1.2 million.

Unlike San Francisco, most Bay Area cities don’t divert stormwater drainage to treatment facilities that filter anything that isn’t stopped in the catch basins. And their network of ponds doesn’t extend to all storm drains, which means waste often drifts straight into the bay unobstructed. Oakland’s catch basins target areas that generate the most litter, but they still only cover 1,280 of the city’s roughly 35,000 acres of land, according to city reports.

The tougher regulations come as Oakland and other cities struggle to deal with a surge in illegal dumping of trash on city streets during the pandemic.

Tom Mumley, acting chief executive of the water board until recently, said the guidelines, known as the 2022 Municipal Regional Stormwater Permit, are needed to continue cleaning the Bay. But cities fear they won’t be able to comply, exposing them to a range of penalties, including fines of up to $10,000 a day.

The water board is “removing tools in the toolbox from what seemed to work in the past,” said Chris Sommers, waste management and assessment manager for the runoff pollution prevention program. city ​​of the Santa Clara Valley, a consortium of more than a dozen. South Bay communities and agencies are working to reduce stormwater waste loads.

“Progress will be achievable,” Sommers said, “but it will take a lot more effort to get from where (cities) are now to the end point.”

A pair of used boots after cleaning up trash at Lake Merritt in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.

A pair of used boots after cleaning up trash at Lake Merritt in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.


Samantha Laurey / The Chronicle
Trash tangled in seaweed inside a trash can at Lake Merritt in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.

Trash tangled in seaweed inside a trash can at Lake Merritt in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.


Samantha Laurey / The Chronicle
Ted Lyman empties a Gray Goose vodka bottle filled with lake water at Lake Merritt in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.

Ted Lyman empties a Gray Goose vodka bottle filled with lake water at Lake Merritt in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.


Samantha Laurey / The Chronicle
Kathy Branddenburg uses tongs to pick up small pieces of trash at Lake Merritt in Oakland, Calif. on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.

Kathy Branddenburg uses tongs to pick up small pieces of trash at Lake Merritt in Oakland, Calif. on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.


Samantha Laurey / The Chronicle


Top photo: Ted Lyman (left) and Kevin Schomo remove litter from the nets of Oakland’s Lake Merritt. Photos above: Boots used by a cleaning volunteer; rubbish tangled in seaweed inside a bin; Ted Lyman drains lake water from an old bottle; Kathy Branddenburg picks up the trash. Photos by Samantha Laurey / The Chronicle

Sommers said cities and agencies are considering filing petitions with the water board opposing the new guidelines.

Bay Area cities have installed waste capture devices in their jurisdictions since the first stormwater waste regulations took effect in 2009. In Santa Clara County, municipalities have installed approximately 1,500 litter capture devices that intercept litter from nearly 20,000 acres of land. The county is about 830,000 acres in size, but, like in Oakland, the devices are targeting the most polluted areas. Large capture devices have contributed about half of San Jose’s waste reduction over the past 10 years, at a cost of more than $25 million, Sommers said.

“It was a huge effort,” he said.

Street sweeping, volunteer cleanups and institutional controls that aim to stop litter at source, such as bans or restrictions on plastic bags and disposable tableware, are also crucial to cities’ efforts. Each of these strategies, if successfully implemented, allows cities to earn credits that count towards compliance with the guidelines before their June 2025 deadline.

Oakland has taken advantage of these credits and has already achieved 103% compliance. Some of that percentage comes from demonstrating litter load reductions through litter capture, but just over a third comes from credits the city was able to claim for implementing additional strategies, a said Kristin Hathaway, manager of Oakland’s watershed and stormwater division. San Jose also achieved 100% compliance before the deadline.

But new regulations prohibit the use of credits for compliance by 2025. In addition, cities are required to ensure that stormwater from private properties – not just public lands – is filtered by the capture devices. urban waste.

Trash pick-up grabbers, nets and other gear for use by U-Clean It volunteers are stored in a lockable box near Lake Merritt.

Trash pick-up grabbers, nets and other gear for use by U-Clean It volunteers are stored in a lockable box near Lake Merritt.


Samantha Laurey / The Chronicle
Naomi Means (left) and Kathy Branddenburg return to a U-Clean box after picking up trash at Lake Merritt.

Naomi Means (left) and Kathy Branddenburg return to a U-Clean box after picking up trash at Lake Merritt.


Samantha Laurey/The Chronicle


Top: Equipment and supplies used by U-Clean It volunteers are stored in a lockable container near Lake Merritt. Above: Naomi Means (left) and Kathy Branddenburg return to the storage box after picking up the trash.

That means cities will have to rely more on cesspools and less on cleanups and other actions. The devices are very effective, but are expensive to install and maintain.

In a joint letter to the water board last fall, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo told regulators that the removal of credits, among other regulatory revisions, would force them to revisit their waste reduction strategies at a time when cities are grappling with COVID-19 and the worsening housing crisis.

The proposed regulations “contain provisions that hinder, rather than facilitate, our cities’ progress toward a better environment,” Schaaf and Liccardo wrote in their letter last year.

“We’re going to have to change strategy,” Hathaway told The Chronicle, referring to the need to install thousands more litter capture devices. “It’s difficult because then there’s a lot more that we have to maintain, and that creates an additional burden on the city.”

(L to R) Steve Durkee holds the hose in place as Antonio Cerna prepares the water hose to help clean out the drain in Fremont, Calif., Thursday, April 7, 2022.

(L to R) Steve Durkee holds the hose in place as Antonio Cerna prepares the water hose to help clean out the drain in Fremont, Calif., Thursday, April 7, 2022.

Samantha Laurey / The Chronicle

Mumley acknowledged the challenges cities face, but he insisted cities have a responsibility to tackle pollution in the bay.

“It seems to me that it’s going to take a major push to change our society from a throwaway society to a pick up society,” Mumley said. “What will it take for everyone in our community to be like this? It’s not going to be easy.

Andy Picon (he/him) is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: andy.picon@hearst.comTwitter: @andpicon

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