Bay Crossings Article

Winter Tips for a Healthy Bay

By 
Sejal Choksi-Chugh
From the December 2015 edition of Bay Crossings

This winter is forecast to bring heavy rains to the Bay Area. But no matter how much rain falls, it’s unlikely to end the current drought. So here are some things we can all do to help protect San Francisco Bay from the surge of pollution that comes during the winter rainy season, including some tips that also help fight drought. 

One serious winter pollution problem for San Francisco Bay is spills of raw sewage. Often the cause is the cooking and cleanup of rich foods, particularly holiday meals. Cooking rich foods like turkey, roasts, and gravy creates fats, oil and grease that get washed down the drain during cleanup of pots, pans and fryers. 

Small amounts of fat from your kitchen, plus small amounts from your neighbors, can add up to a street sewer line clogged with hardened fat. Sewage can then back up in the street. From there sewage can be washed into storm drains, where it flows directly into local creeks and the Bay. Here’s how you can help protect the Bay from sewage spills:

Don’t pour fats, oils and grease down the drain. Instead, wipe oily pots and pans with a paper towel, and put the towel and other waste in the compost bin. Or pour cooled fats and oils into a can with a lid and put it in the garbage. Take large quantities of oil and grease, like used oil from a fryer, to a recycling site. 

Avoid planting trees and shrubs near the sewer line that connects your home to the sewer system. Plant roots are another common cause of sewer line problems that can cause sewage to be washed or spilled into storm drains or creeks that lead to the Bay.

Sewage isn’t the only serious winter pollution problem in the Bay. Contaminated rainwater hits the Bay with huge pollution loads. When rain falls on roads, parking lots, roofs and other impermeable surfaces, it picks up pollutants that include trash, oil, pesticides, and fertilizers. In most Bay Area communities, including those many miles from the Bay’s shore, the contaminated rainwater rushes down a storm drain that dumps it—pollutants, trash, and all—into the Bay or into creeks that flow to the Bay. 

Here’s how you can help protect the Bay from contaminated rainwater:

Avoid weed killers and fertilizers. Herbicides marketed to kill weeds poison pets, kids and creeks. When fertilizers get washed into creeks and the Bay, it can rob the Bay of oxygen fish need.

Don’t use pesticides, even “safer” ones. Urban and suburban pesticide use is a major source of water pollution that kills fish and aquatic plants and insects. Pyrethrins are marketed as safe and natural, because they are derived from chrysanthemums. However, these pesticides have been closely linked with neurological problems and developmental delays in exposed children. Instead, try physical removal of pests and squishing invaders.

Practice Bay-friendly car maintenance. Don’t wash your car in your driveway or street, where harmful chemicals flow into storm drains and end up in the Bay. Instead, take your car to a car wash where the water is diverted to a wastewater treatment plant. Better yet, to use less water during drought, consider washing your car less frequently, or letting it stay dirty. Check your car regularly for leaks. Residue from oil and gas leaks will eventually wash into the Bay.

Install a rain barrel or cistern. Winter is the time to start making better use of the rain that falls on your home. When you reduce the amount of storm water that runs off your property, it keeps that water from picking up pollutants in gutters and streets and carrying contamination to storm drains that lead to the Bay. As a bonus, capturing rainwater to irrigate your garden later, during the dry season, helps fight drought by reducing your water consumption.

Plant a rain garden. Direct the rainwater from your roof, driveway and walkways to a garden of native, drought-resistant plants. A rain garden absorbs rainwater and breaks down pollutants naturally instead of allowing polluted rainwater to flow to the Bay.

You can also help by supporting the building of Bay-friendly storm water and sewage systems in your community. Baykeeper is working to get Bay Area cities to invest in maintaining effective storm drains and sewer infrastructure, in order to reduce pollution to the Bay. To learn more about Baykeeper and support our work, please visit www.Baykeeper.org/donate.