Beat Cops of the Bay 

How the nonprofit group Baykeeper monitors polluters in Bay Area waters.

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Industrial toxins and urban runoff have transformed the West Coast's largest estuary into a toxic soup, and a 21st-Century flood of microplastics and pharmaceutical residues is making matters worse.

The challenges go on. In spite of the victory against Levin-Richmond, a push to increase coal shipments through East Bay ports is gaining strength, and sand dredging in the central Bay, near Angel Island, threatens seafloor habitat. The future will pose still another suite of challenges as the world's oceans rise. Eventually, the sea will swamp numerous contaminated sites on the shore of the Bay that are now high and dry.

"What's going to happen when the water rises?" Choksi-Chugh said.

From the cabin of the Baykeeper, Choksi-Chugh surveys the site of Manson Construction.

"I wonder what it is they're doing," she said.

A group of workers on the dock glance at the boat as it navigates through the tiny channel. She waves, and they wave back. Baykeeper hasn't ever sued their company, and they don't know each other personally, but it seems possible that someday they will meet in court.

100 Percent Trash Reduction — Laudable or Laughable?

One morning last year, as the San Francisco Baykeeper departed the Oakland Estuary on a morning patrol, the boat almost immediately came to a halt as the crew stared aghast over a raft of floating trash about a half-mile wide — sort of a crude miniature of the central Pacific plastic gyre, which is formed largely of microplastics.

Choksi-Chugh recalls seeing a harbor seal break the surface, surrounded by rubbish, and turn its big-eyed Labrador gaze toward the boat.

"I'm not trying to anthropomorphize, but this seal looked at us like, "Hey — what's going on?'" she said.

That question would be well directed at the San Francisco Bay Area Regional Water Quality Control Board. This agency, part of an overarching statewide water management department, ostensibly enforces key tenets of the state's Clean Water Act and Environmental Quality Act, with a mission, posted on the agency's website homepage, "to preserve, enhance and restore the quality of California's water resources and drinking water."

In 2009, the Water Quality Control Board implemented a plan to eliminate trash entering the San Francisco Bay watershed. In what seems a technical contradiction, the initiative aimed at eliminating trash is actually a "permit" to discharge it with specified limitations. Whichever way one looks at it, the Municipal Regional Stormwater Permit clearly states its goals: By July of 2017, cities were expected to curb their trash flow into waterways by 70 percent from 2009 levels. This July, according to the permit, local cities are required to hit an 80 percent reduction from stormwater trash flow a decade ago. By July 1, 2022, the law calls for "100 percent trash load reduction or no adverse impact to receiving waters."

The objective aligns evenly with the Bay Area population's progressive and environmental values, but it isn't clear that the trash reduction initiatives have amounted yet to anything more than big talk.

Depending on whom one asks, cities are either on track, or failing, to meet these requirements.

According to a water board staff report from March, 2018, all but six of the 71 cities covered by the requirements — essentially every major community within San Francisco Bay's drainage — reported compliance with the law as of the 2017 deadline. Mumley said he expects all cities to report compliance with the 80 percent mitigation requirement coming up this summer.

That should mean that Bay waters are now receiving just one-fifth the trash that flowed into them in 2009. Ian Wren, a staff scientist with Baykeeper, doesn't believe it.

"Some cities are claiming more than 80 percent reduction in trash generation and discharges to the Bay, although there is little evidence these results translate to trash reduction in the Bay," he said.

Wren explained that compliance with the permit is gauged on visual observations of trash in city streets, rather than the amount of trash that makes it to waterways and the Bay. "The approach is easy to manipulate and lacks transparency," he said.

Wren's colleague, Erica Maharg, Baykeeper's managing attorney, also doubts the compliance reports from Bay Area cities.

"While most cities have reported that they are meeting the trash reduction targets, we — and I think most residents around the Bay Area — know that trash continues to clog our streets and our waterways," she said in an email. "There clearly is some disconnect between the high reductions the cities are reporting and the reality on the ground and in the water."

To stem trash flow into waterways as required, many municipalities have installed large trash screening systems, called hydrodynamic separators, in underground storm drain channels. These devices can cost roughly half a million dollars to install, Wren said, and they require maintenance as debris collects inside them. However, placed near major outflow points, they can be a cost-effective way of halting all trash flow originating upstream in urban watersheds.

"By design, these trash capture systems work — they capture the trash," Mumley said.

However, the assumption that a city using these systems has mitigated its garbage problem comes with a big asterisk.

"If you've put in this system, does that mean you've adequately intercepted the pathway of trash from cities into the water?" Mumley said. "Maybe, but there's a question mark there."

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