Bay Area cities must cut trash in storm drains to protect SF Bay

By Kelly Zito, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

More than 70 Bay Area cities from Fairfield to Los Gatos must slash the volume of trash flowing from their streets and storm drains into San Francisco Bay by 40 percent under a new permit plan from regional water quality regulators.

The permit, touted as the first of its kind in the nation, is the most comprehensive effort yet to control the amount of litter that makes its way into the region’s waterways and sets a long-term goal of zero trash discharge by 2022.

The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board is expected to approve the storm water permit today; if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signs off on the measure, it will go into effect Dec. 1.

Under the plan, municipalities in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties and in the Fairfield-Suisun metropolitan area must reduce the amount of trash in storm water runoff 40 percent by 2014. Other cities in the region and San Francisco, whose relatively unusual water system treats both storm water runoff and wastewater, are covered by separate water board permits.

Millions of pounds of trash – about 80 percent originating on land – end up nestled along shorelines and floating in the region’s waterways each year, according to environmental advocacy groups. Without stricter rules, those plastic bags, cigarette butts and Styrofoam cups threaten to further harm wildlife, increase pollution and choke streams and rivers.

“Trash is a serious pollutant, and the previous permit only contained modest suggestions about street cleaning,” said David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay. “There were no real requirements or penalties for reducing trash or even assessing how much trash storm water is carrying into the bay.”

Catching the waste

In the first year of the five-year permit, cities are expected to assess the amount of trash making its way to the bay from their jurisdictions, identify refuse hot spots and, depending on the size of the area, install special devices to catch the waste. Examples include storm drain inserts that filter waste as well as booms or nets that snag trash in streams. The municipalities must also track and identify sources of mercury, PCBs and other pollutants.

As it does with other toxic substances, the water board has authority to track violations, revoke permits and levy fines if cities fail to comply.

With property tax revenue declining and budgets getting tighter, however, many cities are concerned about the costs. Estimates for trash abatement run into the tens of millions of dollars each year for the region.

“We’re very interested in prioritizing trash, but it means we have fewer resources for other areas,” said Geoff Brosseau, executive director of the Bay Area Stormwater Management Agencies Association, a coalition of eight regional storm water programs.

Some cities are hoping to shift the burden by going after the source of some types of trash.

San Jose, for example, became the biggest city in the country to ban single-use plastic shopping bags. The ban, approved last month, is expected to begin in 2011 following an environmental review.

Water regulators acknowledge the repercussions for both government and business. But with more awareness of the impacts of the waste cycle – namely the tons of refuse netted during annual coastal cleanup drives and the gargantuan Pacific garbage patch – they say more must be done to keep waterways free of this most visible pollutant.

Major concern

“Trash has become a major water quality concern,” said Tom Mumley, assistant executive officer at the regional water board. “It’s given the board cause to ask for more actions from municipalities.”

At least a few storm water officials hope the permit and resulting measures spur more residents to change their personal habits.

“When a person litters, the responsibility and cost get transferred to the public sector,” said Brosseau. “It means taxpayers pay more when people aren’t responsible with their trash.”

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