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Oaklanders clean up waterways during Creek to Bay Day

on September 19, 2011

The sounds and smells of the bustling Coliseum swap meet—frustrated honking from the overcrowded parking lot and the hot fried dough aroma of fresh churros—drifted over Seminary Creek Saturday morning, as volunteers clad in neon-yellow work vests trolled its steep banks looking not for a bargain, but for trash.

Armed with gloves, rakes, and trash-grabbers they filled bag after bag with litter as part of the 16th annual Creek to Bay Day – an event when volunteers remove trash and debris from beaches and waterways. The more adventurous amongst the approximately forty volunteers cleaning up the industrial area around the creek ventured below the high tide line, fighting slippery muddy conditions to reach trash floating or submerged in the water.

Tires and traffic cones lurked under the water’s surface, aluminum cans and plastic bags floated on top, and broken glass, food wrappers, styrofoam containers and even syringes and needles lined the water’s edge. The dry grasses, shrubs, and occasional small trees that line the creek’s sloping banks provide a slice of green in a landscape otherwise dominated by pavement and industry. The creek has two branches that skirt either side of the swap meet and nearby warehouses before the water runs through culverts under Coliseum Way. The creek ultimately empties into the Arrowhead Marsh in San Leandro Bay, which is part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline.

Jon Bauer

Jon Bauer, a board member for Keep Oakland Beautiful, coordinated the Seminary Creek cleanup effort. It was one of 26 cleanup sites throughout Oakland.

“What’s critical is that we’re getting here right before the rainy season,” said volunteer Jon Bauer, who helped organize the cleanup effort at the Seminary Creek site.  “When it starts raining, everything in this creek will all get out into the bay.”

The Creek to Bay cleanup event takes place every year in conjunction with International Coastal Cleanup Day, led by the Ocean Conservancy, an international environmental advocacy group. The City of Oakland’s Public Works Agency organizes the Oakland Creek to Bay Day, with funding from the Alameda County Flood Control and Water Conservation District.

This year the event hosted 26 individual cleanup sites at creeks throughout Oakland, as well as at Lake Merritt.  At some of these sites, including Arroyo Viejo, Sausal and Glen Echo creeks, volunteers also removed invasive plants and planted native species in addition to picking up litter.  At Lake Merritt, volunteers cleaned storm drains and outfall barriers at the boating center.

Last year 1,479 volunteers collected over 4,088 pounds of trash from Oakland’s creeks and Lake Merritt, according to reports from the city’s Public Works Agency.  Although results from this year’s cleanup won’t be available until later this week, Oakland Creek to Bay Day coordinator Bryn Samuel said that they have seen “steady increases in participation over the past few years” and put initial estimates for yesterday’s turnout at around 1,100 people at the 26 Oakland sites.

While the other creek cleanup sites, such as Temescal, Arroyo Viejo, and Glen Echo creeks have been benefiting from Creek to Bay Day for years, this is the first time Seminary Creek has been included in the cleanup effort. “All of the other sites have neighborhood groups that organize cleanups,” said Samuels.  “About three-quarters of them do regular cleanups either monthly or quarterly.”

But Seminary Creek, because of its location among warehouses, abandoned factories and auto body shops, doesn’t have a neighborhood group attached to it, and as a result it has been historically neglected, said Bauer. “This area, being industrial, has been forgotten,” said Bauer, who is also a board member for Keep Oakland Beautiful, a nonprofit organization that works to improve community environments, and which spearheaded the Seminary Creek cleanup effort on Saturday.

According to Bauer, in addition to years of neglect, the prevailing winds off the bay and the creek’s proximity to the swap meet are also responsible for the large amounts of litter in Seminary Creek, most of which is plastic bags.

Cookie Robles-Wong, who works with the city’s Public Works Agency in the Keep Oakland Clean and Beautiful Division agrees that the swap meet plays a role in the state of the creek. The Coliseum market, she said, is open six days a week. “Saturdays they usually see about 5,000 people, more on Sunday,” she said. “There aren’t enough garbage cans and the litter containers they do have are not very visible.”

To address this issue, Creek to Bay Day volunteers were also posted at the swap meet entrances where they gave away reusable canvas shopping bags to entering market-goers.  Each bag contained information about recycling and waste disposal written in English, Spanish, and Chinese.

Volunteers at Seminary Creek

Students from UC Berkeley worked in teams to pick up litter at Seminary Creek Saturday morning.

Many of the volunteers at Seminary Creek were a part of Keep Oakland Beautiful, including five of its board members.  But there were also students from the UC Berkeley’s Regents’ and Chancellor’s Scholars Association, a student-run organization of scholarship recipients, as well as a number of teenagers from Alameda County’s Weekend Training Academy, which is a court-ordered alternative to detention for young offenders that provides community service opportunities.

Leah Renwick, a sophomore at UC Berkeley, didn’t mind having to get up at 8 o’clock on a Saturday to pitch in with the cleanup. “It was a good way to get out of our campus sphere and out into the real world,” she said. “And it feels good to be less self-serving.”

The results from this year’s Oakland Creek to Bay Day – how many pounds of trash were removed and how many people participated – will be posted at


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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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