Damon Slough, a chunk of preserved parkland in Oakland that stretches for more than eight acres along the Martin Luther King Jr. shoreline, was named one of the Bay Area’s top five most littered waterways in 2012, environmental groups said today.
Trash is building up downstream in massive amounts—choking wetlands, poisoning and entangling animals, spoiling water quality, degrading recreational areas and threatening public health, said organizers from Save the Bay, a San Francisco-based environmental advocacy group that put out the list of the five shorelines with the most garbage.
“Our goal is to highlight how much of a problem trash poses for the pollution of San Francisco Bay, where the trash comes from, and how it can be reduced over time,” said David Lewis, the organization’s executive director. “Trash is one of the biggest pollutants of the bay, and when everyday common items like cigarette butts and plastic bags flow in the storm drains, they go right out to the bay.”
Damon Slough, the only place in Oakland that was called out for its mass of garbage accumulation, is home to endangered species such as the California Clapper Rail and the Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse, as well as native plant species like the Coast Live Oak and a cousin of the Iris, called Blue-Eyed Grass.
But officials said today that the volume of garbage poses a threat to the bay’s ecosystem, and that the area violates the federal Clean Water Act—a 1972 law that regulates discharge contaminating water bodies in the U.S., and monitors quality standards for surface water.
At the marsh, just minutes from Interstate 880, debris accumulates daily. On any normal day, candy wrappers, milk gallons and plastic bags litter the wetlands. When the tide is low, the estuary reveals old tires, shopping carts and clothing.
“Damon Slough is one of the places with the most persistent high volume of trash in the Bay Area,” Lewis said.
For the last five years, Damon Slough has been named one of the region’s most polluted waterways. In part, that’s because the creek area is downstream from Oakland, a city with 395,000 people, and the area’s storm drains flow right to the wetland, environmentalists said.
“It’s a large urban area with a lot of trash and no screens to separate it out,” Lewis said. “And there are such concentrated sources of trash along the stream, including the Coliseum, and the large flea market there, Interstate 80, we have BART, and several parking lots.”
In response, Save the Bay is teaming up with the Environmental Protection Agency for the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, to raise awareness and encourage the public to reduce trash flowing to the most polluted waterways in the Bay Area. And this weekend, on Saturday, Sept. 15, environmental groups are organizing a massive coastal cleanup day, when thousands of volunteers are expected to show up to clean litter from shorelines throughout the state.
Save the Bay’s list tracked trash, not other pollutants such as chemicals or heavy metals. The five waterways singled out are Damon Slough in Oakland, the Hayward shoreline, San Tomas Aquino Creek in Santa Clara, Coyote Creek in San Jose and Baxter Creek in Richmond.
While environmentalists making Wednesday’s dirty-waterways announcement said they hoped the list would prompt more volunteers to join cleanup efforts, they said larger regional trash-reduction mandates are also underway. New rules by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board require most Bay Area cities, including Oakland, to spend the next decade making sure no waste at all flows into storm drains, which lead to the bay.
“It basically tells most Bay Area cities that they have to reduce the amount of trash in stormwater 40 percent by 2014, 70 percent by 2017 and essentially to zero by 2022,” said Allison Chan, a policy associate with Save the Bay, which advocated for the new rules. “It regulates any kind of pollutant that could be coming through stormwater, like oil and bacterial contamination or heavy metals—anything associated with urban runoff—that flows from in to our storm drains and into the Bay.”
This year was the first year cities have had to report the amount of garbage that flows through storm drain systems.
In 2011, according to data from the EPA, nearly 100,000 pounds of trash flowed into Oakland’s storm drains, some of it ending up at Damon Slough.
“Trash continues to do serious damage to the San Francisco Bay and the ocean,” said Jared Blumenfeld, a regional administrator for the EPA in the Pacific Southwest. “It’s everyone’s responsibility to reduce trash. By meeting the Clean Water Act’s goals, we can make our waters safe for fish, wildlife and public enjoyment.”
Save the Bay officials pointed to efforts underway at Damon Slough to restore the wetlands. Today, more than 700 native plant species and a functioning wetland have replaced what used to be an 8.5-acre dirt parking lot. The Port of Oakland paid $3.2 million to build the ecosystem, as part of a 2002 mitigation ruling for an Oakland International Airport runway overlay project, which filled in a half acre of wetlands for the construction, according to Port of Oakland environmental scientist Douglas Herman.
“Before it was basically an open field, used as an overflow parking lot for the Oakland Coliseum,” Herman said. “Now it is a functioning wetland; it holds water six or seven months a year, and it’s an important stop for migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway.”
The wetlands were transferred in late July from the Port to the East Bay Regional Parks.
Lewis, with Save the Bay, said restoration efforts like the wetlands at Damon Slough are important for the overall health of the bay.
“Wetlands are the lungs of the bay,” he said. “They improve water quality by screening out sediment and pollutants, they provide habitat for fish and wildlife, they provide flood protection during storms and high tides and they also sequester carbon, which helps in the fight against climate change.”
Organizers pointed to the coastal cleanup event this weekend, as well as regional trash reduction goals, as two ways for the public to get involved.
“Cleanups are great as education, but there is so much trash coming back to these places,” Lewis said. “We need to reduce how much is being created, and do things like create screen drainage systems to capture the waste before it gets into the bay.”
Some efforts are also underway in Oakland to reduce the amount of garbage that ends up downstream. For example, Alameda County in January passed a plastic bag ban, set to go into effect in January 2013, prohibiting stores that sell packaged foods from giving out single-use bags.
Jay Alan, a spokesman for Mayor Jean Quan’s office, said the city supports efforts to reduce the use of plastic bags and other non-recyclable items like Styrofoam containers. And, according to Alan, the city is building a large underground trash collection system near Damon Slough, geared towards reducing the amount of trash that flows to areas like Damon Slough.
“There is a global trash problem in the ocean, and a large part of that comes from dense urban areas,” Lewis said. “It’s better to stop trash where it starts—with the source. Us.”
Interested in volunteering to clean up trash from the region’s shorelines this weekend? Check out a list of places to volunteer for this weekend’s coastal cleanup day. Volunteer events are scheduled from 9 a.m. to noon. Go here for a list by county.