More than 70 cities and municipal agencies that ring San Francisco Bay have an ambitious goal to keep trash out of their creeks and storm sewers.

The idea is to make it an uncommon event to see a plastic bag bobbing in the waves  or washed up on a beach.

In a plan that takes effect Dec. 1, the cities have five years to reduce the waste stream into the bay by 40 percent. The goal was set by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Board at an October meeting.

Complete elimination is targeted for 12 years.

“In these resource-constrained times for all communities, it (the regional board’s goal) is very ambitious,” said Melody Tovar, deputy director of watershed protection for city of San Jose Environmental Services. “The only way is if we broadly engage partners and tap into nonmunicipal funding. With state and federal monies, we significantly increase our chance of success.”

This year, San Jose and Sunnyvale officials are examining results from a pilot project aimed at curbing the waste stream with catch basin insert filters. It is intercepting more trash, Tovar said, but the evaluation won’t yield a full picture until the area goes through a heavier-than-average wet season.

“So far the results look promising with respect to maintenance,” Tovar said. “Our catch basins themselves are not uniform. So we’re not able to install them in every location.”

The cost is $1,500 per unit installed plus maintenance costs. The pilot project has installed 84 filters, Tovar said, out of some 30,000 catch basins in San Jose. Thus, city officials must target catch basins with the potential to trap the most trash.

The new insert filters would be one element in a comprehensive trash-reduction plan city environmental staff is working on. Part of the solution may be a potential San Jose ordinance that city staff is drafting to limit city businesses from using single-use, carryout plastic bags.

“We see plastic bags quite a bit in our litter stream,” said Tovar.

Other elements in a San Jose stormwater trash reduction plan will include: more frequent maintenance such as street sweeping and catch basin cleaning, adding trash receptacles, increasing enforcement of litter laws (“it’s important to reduce the number of overflowing litter cans,” said Tovar) and emphasizing public education.

“A very vigorous volunteer program,” in the words of Lesley Estes, the Watershed and Stormwater Management Program manager with the city of Oakland’s Department of Engineering and Construction, has helped Oakland reduce stormwater trash in recent years.

Oakland volunteers clamber down into creekbeds and pick up trash (and taking other maintenance measures) on Earth Day plus Oakland’s Creek to Bay Day (part of Coastal Cleanup Day) in September. Also, there are ongoing volunteer programs as part of an “adopt a creek” and “maintain a drain” efforts.

The city tallied 1,504 volunteers on Creek to Bay Day, stashing 2,449 pounds of trash and 159 pounds of recyclables.

“Volunteerism does several different things,” Estes said. “One, it helps us to clean up areas and plant areas, and helps people become educated. When they get their hands messy with trash and dirt, it affects them and changes their behavior. It gets people out there to see the trash and become a part of picking it up and become ambassadors about preventing trash in the first place.”

In recent years, Oakland has made improvements with floating trash booms in Lake Merritt downtown (and one at Damon Slough) and installation of CDS (continuous deflection separators) in storm sewer lines.

The latter allow trash to settle into a basket and be periodically sucked out of a manhole using a big truck vacuum. Four CDS have been installed with plans to add three more, including one in the Lake Merritt area in the next few weeks, Estes said.
The floating booms have a net underneath that collects trash as water flows by. The Damon Slough boom (nicknamed the “Coliseum Sea Curtain” as it serves the waterway visible to fans walking to Oakland’s football and baseball stadium) collected 6,000 pounds of trash after this fall’s first rain, Estes said.

With the help of a $1 million grant from the Coastal Conservancy, Oakland has recently spiffed up manmade islands in Lake Merritt. City crews have removed some dead trees and planted new trees and native plants, as well as taking erosion control measures.

The islands were believed to be the first bird sanctuary in the country when the islands were built in 1869 to accommodate migratory birds.

Oakland also does its part to stop trash before it ever washes into storm sewers, including passing the first polystyrene (Styrofoam) ban in California, which took effect in 2007. There were protests from city restaurants at the expense and trouble of converting to cardboard and biodegradable containers.

“But now it is part of our everyday life,” said Estes.

The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Board’s stormwater reduction program applies to cities in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Solano counties.