Bay Crossings Article

On a Mission Under Cover of a Rainy Night

Deb Self
From the January 2012 edition of Bay Crossings

As cold rain fell from the night sky, we slipped our kayaks into the dark waters off the East Bay shore. The Bay’s surface was calm. The only sound was raindrops splashing on our kayaks and the water around us. Lights from shore allowed us to find our way.

Baykeeper staff scientist Ian Wren and I suspected that toxic metals were being washed into San Francisco Bay. We were paddling toward one of the more than 1,300 industrial facilities that ring San Francisco Bay to catch polluters in the act. During dry weather, we’d walked around the edge of the property and observed the toxic dust and liquids accumulating there. Big splotches of caked toxic dust were even visible in aerial images we found online.

Toxic runoff from industrial facilities is a major threat to the Bay’s health. When it rains, built-up chemicals are washed into storm drains that empty into the Bay. If the facility is located on the shoreline, chemical-laden rainwater can drain directly into the Bay.

It would have been more pleasant to kayak to this spot in daylight, under sunshine. But we had good reasons for coming on a rainy night. First, polluters don’t always take kindly to being investigated. Second, to find out just how bad the pollution was, we needed to get a water sample when the first surge of rain was flushing accumulated toxics into the Bay’s waters—and this first big storm of the year had arrived in the middle of the night.

After a quarter-mile of paddling, we spotted the facility’s discharge pipe. Rainwater gushed out into the Bay, draining directly from the property.

I positioned my bobbing kayak beneath the pipe, which was about five feet above the Bay’s surface. From the stream above me, I filled several half-liter plastic lab bottles, unfortunately drinking a few swallows of the water in the process. I stowed the bottles at the bottom of my kayak and we paddled silently away.

The next morning, we delivered those bottles, which we had kept refrigerated overnight, to a certified Berkeley testing lab. The grim results came back: a level of copper thousands of times higher than the legal limit, high enough to be toxic to fish and other marine life.

This night expedition was one small part of Baykeeper’s ongoing efforts to reduce—and eventually end—San Francisco Bay industrial runoff pollution.

Industrial runoff often contains high levels of heavy metals, including zinc, lead and the copper we found during our night kayak expedition. These metals contaminate the Bay food chain and impair the health of fish and animals. For example, salmon exposed to levels of copper lower than those we found that night can lose their sense of smell, damaging their ability to navigate and return to their spawning grounds.

Baykeeper steps in to stop this pollution. The federal Clean Water Act gives citizen groups the right to stop water pollution through lawsuits. Baykeeper uses this law as a tool to compel polluters to keep their toxic waste out of San Francisco Bay. Just the threat of litigation often leads to successful negotiations, where polluters commit to stop contaminating the Bay. If you observe pollution while you’re out on the Bay, please call Baykeeper’s pollution hotline at 1-800-KEEP-BAY, send an email to or go to "Report Pollution" at