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Oaklanders prevent flooding by adopting storm drains

on November 14, 2014

You can adopt a cat, dog or rabbit anywhere. Now in Oakland you can adopt a drain.

In early 2014, the city of Oakland launched its Adopt a Drain program. Oakland has over 10,000 storm drains, spread over the city on every street. When clogged with trash, water in the drains overflow, flooding streets and sidewalks. This happens particularly often during fall and winter, due to storm season and massive amounts of fallen leaves.

Creeks, storm drains and sanitary sewer pipes make up of the underground water system in Oakland. The storm drains are designed to collect rainwater, which goes directly to the bay without treatment. The only thing standing between the drains and the bay are 20 filters, located before pipe junctions. The filters collect trash the size of a cigarette butt or larger. Leaves and trash can easily block these drains, causing flooding and costly recovery.

For cities like Oakland, where clay pipes still make up a large percentage of the underground water system, blockage often results in pipe leakage. When pipes leak, sewer water and drain water intermix, causing water that had been flushed down the toilet either to run into the bay without treatment, or overflow out of the sinks, toilets and pipes under the house.

Now, with a broom and a bag, volunteers can lend a helping hand by clearing the drains and reducing the chances of overflow. “People need to know that everything coming off the streets means less garbage in the air, in the drain and therefore in the bay,” said Kristine Shaff, public information officer for Oakland Public Works, which builds and maintains Oakland’s environmental infrastructure.

To make the adoption process easier, Oakland Public Works partnered with OpenOakland, an organization that works to improve government service through technology, to develop an Adopt a Drain website. The 10,000 drains are precisely mapped and marked by different colors to distinguish the adopted from the to-be-adopted. Individuals, families, businesses and organizations can claim responsibility for one or more drains by simply clicking the spots that are most convenient for them. To sign up, volunteers fill in their name (most volunteers use nicknames), phone number and email address. They are then led to the volunteer guidelines where they are briefed on duties, conduct and safety issues. “Nothing is mandated, and we don’t check if you are doing a good job,” Shaff said. “People must really care about it to do this.”

A year ago, Joshua Fowler, founding editor of nomadic press, a non-profit art workspace, adopted with his team 14 drains in the Fruitvale area. Since then, his team has done a number of community cleanups. “Whoever is free during our cleanup days tends to help out,” Fowler said. “It is a wonderfully accessible way for people to show their support for cleaning up and taking pride in their neighborhoods.”

Of Oakland’s 10,000 drains, several hundreds have been adopted so far. According to Shaff, people who adopt drains are usually those who participate in other community cleanups. “This website is an exciting new way for volunteers to connect with us,” said Brooke Levin, director of Oakland Public Works. “It makes adoption of your neighborhood storm drain easy.”

The project is part of a partnership with a Code for America brigade that works with government to solve local problems using technology. Previously, volunteer technologists from Code for America developed an Adopt a Hydrant website for Boston to make sure fire hydrants don’t stay covered in snow during winter, and an Adopt a Siren website for Honolulu to make sure the life-saving tsunami alarms are fully functional.

The website is not the only technology aide Oakland has in drain protection. Since 2012, Oakland has used the mobile app SeeClickFix to allow residents to report problems they see in the city. It helps the government to track, manage and reply to complaints over planting, weeding, graffiti, road damage and more. According to Oakland Public works, ever since, the department has received 20,000 more requests have been annually, in addition to the 40,000 annual requests made through traditional platforms like phone calls, letters and email.

Today a total of 17 employees in the Storm Drain Maintenance Section at Oakland Public Works take care of the 10,000 drains, 370 miles of drain pipe, seven pump stations and 40 miles of creeks that connect Oakland to the bay. “We are the housekeepers of the city,” Shaff said. “But every mother needs help from the family.” Shaff sees having volunteers take care of the drains as having the kids take out the trash. By helping clean the drains, citizens can not only learn about the underground water system, but can also tell the government where to improve.

According to Oakland Public Works, the number of overflows has decreased considerably. Now there are only one third as many sewer overflows as there were five years ago. Despite the fact that Adopt a Drain is new and that it is responsible for only a small part of the change, “it is one of those things that are working when everyone does one tiny piece,” Shaff said.

You can volunteer to adopt a drain and report any problems at and

Image: A screenshot of the Adopt a Drain website run by Oakland Public Works, which allows users to adopt drains and help prevent flooding by keep their storm drains clean and clear.

The story was updated to correct Brooke Levin’s job title.


  1. livegreen on November 16, 2014 at 9:18 pm

    “According to Oakland Public Works, the city has seen one third of the number of sewer overflows in the past five years. Despite the fact that Adopt a Drain is new and that it is responsible for only a small part of the change, “it is one of those things that are working when everyone does one tiny piece,” Shaff said.”

    So OPW is attributing correlation to causation & Oakland Local is reporting it without question.

    Another possible explanation: anybody heard the word “drought” recently?

  2. livegreen on November 16, 2014 at 9:39 pm

    We should turn other basic city services over to volunteers. Then Oakland won’t have to hire more staff & can continue giving pay raises to those who remain when employee contracts open up next year.

    It’s working well at Public Works: $400 million in unfunded road repairs & $200 million in unfunded Parks & Rec repairs.

    Oakland unions & libertarians UNITE!

  3. […] in sustainability,” she said. She was wearing a light blue t-shirt that read: “Ask me about Adopt A Storm Drain,” a reference to a city program through which people can chose a drain close to where they live, […]

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