Baykeeper: Looking Forward After 25 Years of Protecting the Bay

Jan 5, 2015
Bay Crossings Staff
by Bay Crossings Staff

In 1989, no one was out on San Francisco Bay looking for pollution, and polluters were free to dump waste into the Bay. Alarmed by the Bay’s slow poisoning from thousands of sources, research scientist Dr. Michael Herz and a visionary group of volunteer board members founded San Francisco Baykeeper.

Baykeeper soon began patrolling San Francisco Bay by boat. Bay Area residents responded by volunteering, reporting pollution and donating funds. The new organization soon became known for reining in polluters and preventing pollution—and has gone on to change the fate of San Francisco Bay.

It has been 25 years since then, and Baykeeper has a list of remarkable achievements protecting the Bay ecosystem. We celebrated the achievements of Baykeeper’s first 25 years in Bay Crossings last summer, but the occasion also gives us a chance to look ahead to the threats the Bay will face in the next 25 years: Chemicals released as today’s pollution could harm the Bay for generations. New pollution sources will emerge and some existing sources will grow worse. Sea level rise caused by global climate change threatens to compound the impacts of pollution, and inundate our shorelines and communities.

“Now more than ever, San Francisco Bay needs the strongest protections,” said Deb Self, Baykeeper’s executive director. “Our vision is for the Bay to have the resilience to weather the pressures of climate change, and the vitality to support thriving communities, safe recreation and flourishing wildlife. We’re determined to do what it takes to protect San Francisco Bay for the next 25 years, and we’re ready for the challenges ahead.”

Taking the Lead on Oil Spill Prevention

In 2007, the oil tanker Cosco Busan spilled 53,000 gallons of heavy fuel into San Francisco Bay. Oil stained shorelines and beaches, and killed thousands of birds and other Bay creatures. Since then, Baykeeper has led the development of new legislation and local planning for oil spill prevention and response efforts.

In 2014, Baykeeper helped orchestrate the passage of a new state law that better protects all California waterways from oil spills. The law provides the state’s rivers, lakes, and creeks with oil spill protections previously given only to California coastal waters. The law also expands funding for the rescue and care of wildlife threatened by an oil spill.

Now, Baykeeper is working to stop the oil industry’s push to increase the shipment of crude oil into the Bay Area by rail. Shipping oil here in long trains of tank cars creates a substantial risk of oil spills in the watershed and for communities near railroad tracks.

A Strong Record of Making the Bay Cleaner and Safer

For years, sewage spills have been a major threat to Bay health, releasing bacteria and other pathogens into the water. But Baykeeper has made significant progress toward reducing sewage pollution in San Francisco Bay, making the water cleaner and safer for wildlife and for swimmers, surfers, sailors and beach-goers.

In 2000, Baykeeper led a coalition of neighborhood and environmental groups to win crucial changes in the redevelopment of San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood. The improvements prevented annual overflows of 30 million gallons of sewage into the Bay. Since 2006, Baykeeper’s Sick of Sewage Campaign has compelled 20 of the worst-polluting cities and sewage districts in the Bay Area to upgrade leaky pipes and outdated infrastructure. As a result, some cities have already reduced sewage spills by 75 percent or more.

A Breakthrough to Protect the Bay from Sewage

Last year, in a landmark solution to a long-standing sewage pollution problem, Baykeeper won an agreement that will reduce, and eventually end, the release of millions of gallons of undertreated sewage from East Bay cities into San Francisco Bay. The changes will lead to an enormous improvement in the Bay’s health. Sewer agencies serving Oakland, Berkeley and seven other East Bay cities agreed to make major investments in an aggressive effort to replace outdated pipes and infrastructure over the next 21 years. This victory is a result of joint legal action by Baykeeper, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Water Board. Baykeeper will continue to monitor the upgrades closely to ensure the cities are effectively reducing Bay pollution.

Recent Victories to Reduce Industrial Pollution in the Bay

Today, toxic rainy-season runoff from industrial facilities is one of San Francisco Bay’s most pervasive pollution problems. The Bay Area has more than 1,000 industrial sites, including scrap metal yards, shipping terminals, auto wreckers and steel fabricators. Most are not doing what’s required to keep heavy metals and toxic chemicals from contaminating the Bay. This pollution places a heavy burden on the Bay’s ecosystem and wildlife. Baykeeper’s Bay-Safe Industry Campaign is curbing this source of Bay pollution. So far, Baykeeper has secured agreements requiring cleanup at more than 23 industrial facilities, including Levin-Richmond Terminal Corporation, a major source of Bay pollution. The company handles hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic materials on the Richmond Channel, often stored in large exposed piles along the shoreline. After two years of pressure from Baykeeper, the company agreed to install extensive controls to protect the Bay from toxic runoff.  Baykeeper is currently negotiating for cleanup with six additional industrial facilities, and has 40 more under investigation.

Stopping Storm Water Pollution From City Streets and Paved Surfaces

Industrial facilities are not the only source of runoff pollution in San Francisco Bay. When rain falls on roads, parking lots, and other paved surfaces, it picks up trash, oil, pesticides and other pollutants. In most Bay Area communities, the contaminated rainwater rushes down a storm drain that dumps it—pollutants, trash and all—into creeks that flow to the Bay or into the Bay itself. After big storms, a surge of pollution is carried into the Bay. It’s one of the Bay’s most serious pollution problems.

While every Bay Area city is contaminating the Bay with storm water runoff, Baykeeper’s two-year investigation shows San Jose has some of the highest levels of this pollution. Baykeeper recently sent the City of San Jose a notice that it intends to sue the city for failing to keep trash, bacteria and other pollution from washing into major creeks and tributaries to San Francisco Bay. The pollution threatens seals, shorebirds and other wildlife, harms spawning fish, and can cause illness in people who spend time on or near the water.

Baykeeper will focus on compelling San Jose to install new and effective controls that will significantly reduce polluted storm water runoff, to bring the city into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. “We hope San Jose can also serve as a model that will push other Bay Area cities to stop allowing highly polluted storm water to run into the San Francisco Bay and its tributaries,” said Baykeeper Executive Director Deb Self.

Patrolling the Bay for Pollution in the Baykeeper Boat

In the coming year, as in all 25 years past, Baykeeper will be on San Francisco Bay in the Baykeeper boat, patrolling for pollution. No other nonprofit or government agency has a boat and maintains an on-the-water presence to monitor the health of the Bay. On boat patrols, Baykeeper legal and science staff, with the help of volunteer skippers, investigate possible new pollution sources. They also check up on polluters who have signed agreements to clean up, to make sure the polluters are doing what’s required to keep contamination out of the Bay. And Baykeeper searches for signs of ecological health—including migratory birds, seals, and sea lions feasting on the Bay’s fish.

To learn more about Baykeeper and how to support their efforts, visit

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