Volunteers flock to Oakland shorelines for Coastal Cleanup Day

Volunteers at the Creek to Bay Day Rockridge/Temescal site.

Perry Parsons, an 8th grader at St. Mark’s Episcopal School in Oakland, discovered a spring, a shoe and a part of a black plastic wall socket that “looks like a face” in the Damon Slough waterway in East Oakland while volunteering on Saturday at the city’s Creek to Bay community service day.

The 17th annual such service day in Oakland coincided with the world’s 27th International Coastal Cleanup Day, and the State of California’s 28th annual California Coastal Cleanup Day. From 9 until noon on a foggy morning, volunteers worked at 27 different Oakland locations to beautify the city and better the ecosystem by removing trash, cutting back invasive plants and planting seeds of plant species native to the area.

“We’ve been cleaning up the shoreline all year, but it hasn’t rained,” said Ralph Trujillo, park supervisor at Martin Luther King, Jr. Shoreline who was assisting a group of high school students with their cleaning efforts. “As soon as the first rains come, we’re going to be back to step one.” Trujillo said that the accumulation of debris in the surrounding streets and creeks is an annual threat to the wellbeing of East Oakland’s saltwater marsh.

A major portion of the trash that  contaminates the shoreline park and neighboring San Leandro Bay is the runoff from “upstream,” a reference to Damon Slough, a waterway that runs through East Oakland, past Oakland’s Coliseum complex and into the bay. The slough was ranked one of the Bay Area’s top 5 hot spots for trash in 2012 by Save The Bay, a non-profit environmental group that works to decrease pollution and bay contamination levels. The slough is also in violation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s federal Clean Water Act standards because of the amount of trash piled up on its shore.

As high school students, members of a local church, and other volunteers cleared driftwood and small pieces of plastic from the area surrounding Trujillo’s post, less than a mile east across the I-880 highway a group of volunteers was filling up 91 bags of trash from the banks of the Damon Slough. As the sun broke through the fog, firefighters, Princeton alumni and elementary school students worked alongside organizers from Save The Bay.

“These costal cleanups are great,” said Save the Bay executive director David Lewis as he lugged a transparent plastic garbage bag full of rubbish in one hand and a partially rusted toaster oven in the other. “But it just helps a little bit.”

Up until 1965, Lewis said, portions of the San Francisco Bay were being filled in with trash as a means to create land for development. By 1961, according to Lewis, the San Francisco Bay had shrunk by one-third of its original size, due to real estate development, landfill, and areas that were diked off as salt evaporation ponds. As an Amtrak train roared past, Lewis walked the strip of land that separates the train tracks from the creek. “A lot of the places you see that look like hills near the shoreline—those are actually former garbage dumps,” he said. Pointing to Oakland’s Coliseum complex in the distance, Lewis said that it, too, was built on landfill.

A state moratorium on that kind of land filling was passed in 1965 thanks to pressure from citizens’ groups, he said. Lewis said the revitalization process of the bay’s wetlands took off in the late 1980’s, which happened to correspond with the inaugural International and California Costal Cleanup Days.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan passed out sports memorabilia as she paid visit to the Coliseum parking lot, where trash was being hauled out of one of the slough. “There is something anybody can do, from being a better consumer to making sure there is no litter on their street,” Quan said. Residents can also do their part by adopting a creek or reporting violators of trash laws, she added.

“Ultimately we just need to reduce this trash at the source,” said Lewis, working on cleaning up the waterway as he spoke. “Picking it up at the end is really the least efficient way. We’re picking up a ton of trash today, and that’s great, but we’re just making a dent. And if you come back here next week, you’ll see it’s trashed again.”

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