While it’s hard to believe today, the San Francisco Estuary was one big dumping ground for cities and industry just decades ago. “The Bay was at its most contaminated from the 1950s to the early ’80s,” says Sam Luoma, a UC Davis ecologist who has spent half his life studying the Bay. “There was an oil spill a day and a fish kill a week.” Fish regularly went belly-up due to lack of oxygen, which in turn was caused by sewage-fed algal blooms. Adds Luoma, “Since then, we’ve fixed the most egregious problems, and the CCMP was part of all of us getting together to talk about it and to figure out the fixes.”
At the CCMP’s outset 20 years ago, the worst concerns included heavy metals and legacy contaminants such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). A big part of addressing these and other problems was the Regional Monitoring Program (RMP), which for the first time gave us a comprehensive look at the health of the Bay (see insert). At least on the downstream end of the Estuary, the RMP shows where contaminants come from and how to reduce them, advancing CCMP goals of controlling pollution at the source, remediating pollution that can’t yet be controlled or is already in the water, protecting wildlife and people, and restoring wetlands. Solid information based on independent science helped industry and municipal water treatment systems clean up their acts.
But monitoring also revealed that a huge amount of water pollution came from runoff from urban areas during storms — a source that was not regulated when the CCMP began and required a whole new approach.
“Urban runoff doesn’t lend itself to end-of-the-pipe treatment,” says Tom Mumley of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, who implemented the Bay Area’s municipal stormwater regulations. Urban runoff comes from a daunting hodgepodge of sources, from streets to yards to roofs. And although they may be small individually, these sources can add up fast. For example, urban runoff is particularly high in PCBs and copper.
While there is no easy fix for the former, the San Francisco Estuary Partnership helped resolve the latter. “In the early days, copper in urban runoff was equal to or even greater than that from wastewater treatment plants,” Mumley says. But no one knew where all that copper was coming from. Then studies linked this heavy metal to brake pads, which was a big surprise. “We weren’t even thinking about brake pads back then,” he adds.
This discovery prompted manufacturers, regulators, and environmentalists to form the Brake Pad Partnership (BPP) in 1996. “This was facilitated by the Estuary Project, which had created a framework of positive relationships between industry and government,” says Kelly Moran, a chemist at TDC Environmental who helped found and implement the BPP. Fast forward to today, and the BPP’s success is evident. Under Senate Bill 346, brake pads sold in California must be down to 5 percent copper by 2021 and down to 0.5 percent by 2025. Even better, Moran expects that most brake pads will meet the final target much sooner.
Another early surprise was that the pesticides that replaced DDT were widespread in urban creeks and toxic to aquatic life. “Modern pesticides were not on our radar screen at the beginning of the CCMP,” Mumley says. To reduce pesticide runoff into streams, the regional water board brought pesticide users and manufacturers, municipalities, and regulators to the same table in the mid-1990s. In the 2000s, the Estuary Partnership facilitated the growth of this cooperative program, which was ultimately called the Urban Pesticide Pollution Prevention Project.
This effort led to new state regulations for pyrethroid pesticides, which are sprayed in a band around buildings. “We found that the band could be reduced from 7 feet to two inches and still control ants,” Moran says. “We’re expecting an 80 percent to 90 percent reduction of pyrethroids in streams.” In addition, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation is now reconfiguring their review process to avoid registering future pesticides that will pollute water.
A more recent concern is trash, which blows out of open dumpsters and builds up near fast food restaurants, transit centers and “anywhere there are large numbers of people in our throwaway society,” Mumley says. Besides being unsightly, trash — like urban runoff — is untreated and so is important to keep out of stormwater. Control options include working with businesses to limit trash generation in the first place, and intercepting trash before it washes down storm drains.
The Partnership is just wrapping up a 5-year demonstration project that entailed placing and assessing more than 4,000 trash capture devices in storm drains in 64 Bay Area municipalities. “This is full trash capture,” says Janet Cox, who directs the project. “The devices catch anything bigger than five millimeters.” Another facet of the project is a website where cities can upload information on how well the devices work. Next steps include extending this site into a statewide water quality portal showcasing trash hotspots and cleanup events.
These are just a few highlights of the CCMP’s many contributions to preventing or reducing pollution in the Estuary over the last 20 years. “Essentially all industrial and military sites around the Bay have been, or are, being cleaned up,” Mumley says. Most visible, perhaps, are the half dozen military bases which have been retired, purged of their poisons, and converted into shoreline parks, wetlands and developments.
Despite great strides in controlling what comes out of the pipe and through storm drains, the biggest, most unpredictable threat to Bay life continues to be oil spills. Most recently, the Cosco Busan ran into the Bay Bridge in 2007 and leaked 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel. The region is now better prepared to respond than it was 20 years ago, and shippers must follow more stringent containment efforts. But herring, waterfowl and other Bay life suffer every time it happens. Funds from oil spill settlements have sought to make amends, underwriting research on how oil affects herring eggs and duck feathers, and buying salt ponds for habitat restoration, among other good works.
Other smaller but important accomplishments in the last 20 years include enlisting the help of dentists in recycling mercury-tainted fillings, rather than flushing them down the drain. And dredging –which once raised a hue and cry about stirring up old contaminants buried in the bay mud– now has stricter protocols.
Upstream, many similar pollution prevention efforts have been underway in the more agricultural regions of the watershed. In the Brentwood Area of Contra Costa County, where large numbers of farmers flood their furrows to irrigate their canning tomatoes, corn, and other crops, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Contra Costa Resource Conservation District have had success showing them how much sediment and runoff comes from this practice. As a result of the outreach, more than 600 acres have been converted in recent years to drip irrigation. “It’s not so much that people aren’t willing to do it, it’s that they don’t realize it’s occurring or it’s a problem,” says the Service’s Alyson Aquino.
For all the successes in pollution prevention and control among CCMP partners, there is still a ways to go. “Some regulations and permits should be strengthened,” says Deb Self, who directs San Francisco Baykeeper, which champions water quality in the Bay. “What the Bay needs are regulations and permits with teeth, adequate monitoring to assess compliance, and aggressive enforcement of permit limits.”
The last two decades have yielded a cleaner, healthier Estuary but have also revealed pollution that is either intractable or comes from sources we hadn’t even considered such as air fresheners and birth control pills. “It’s a never-ending but evolving story,” Mumley says. “The challenges continue to grow.” Thanks partly to the CCMP, so do solutions.