Protecting the Bay from Urban Runoff

Bay Area storm drains tie into our creeks and empty into the Bay without any treatment or filtering. So when it rains, the cigarette butts, automotive fluids, pet waste, household gardening chemicals, and trash accumulated in gutters is washed into local creeks and the Bay. In fact, polluted rainwater accounts for the largest source of pollution to the Bay. Any material or substance left exposed to the elements can be carried into our waterways by stormwater. 

Stormwater runoff causes serious damage to aquatic ecosystems and human health. Pesticides and other chemicals poison the aquatic food web; dirt from construction zones and eroded creeks clouds the water, destroying habitat and impeding healthy plant growth; debris such as plastic bags and bottles suffocate and disable wildlife; and bacteria and other pathogens make waterways unsafe for recreational activities like boating and swimming. In addition to pollution from residential neighborhoods and roadways, the Bay Area contends with runoff from densely-developed urban space, from active industrial sites that use hazardous chemicals and compounds, and from abandoned operations that are still contaminated with long-banned pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. 

The vast majority of stormwater runoff to the Bay drains from land managed by cities and counties. Each municipality is responsible for regulating the stormwater that collects in its system of storm drains and creeks as rainwater travels to the Bay. Over the last two decades, San Francisco Baykeeper has strategically targeted the worst stormwater polluters to the Bay. We have sued numerous industrial polluters with a record of discharging contaminated stormwater into the Bay, forcing them to make improvements to their facilities to prevent runoff of chemicals and industrial compounds. Baykeeper also successfully challenged a number of Bay Area counties over weak regulations, winning stronger controls on stormwater.

Our victories in those cases have set the stage for an initiative that will improve stormwater regulations across every municipality in the Bay Area. The San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board has begun developing a single set of region-wide stormwater regulations, called the municipal regional permit for stormwater. This new permit will regulate stormwater runoff from 77 municipalities in the Bay Area’s nine counties – providing an extraordinary chance to establish effective regulations throughout the entire Bay Area. Baykeeper is now leading the effort to ensure that the permit includes essential components such as adequate controls on PCBs and mercury contamination; careful monitoring and reporting of stormwater pollution; and strong new low impact development requirements – an important tool to reduce stormwater runoff from urban areas. 

Low impact development is an innovative stormwater management approach that attempts to replicate nature’s way of dealing with runoff. By using design elements that capture and manage runoff close to its source, low impact development effectively prevents stormwater runoff before it happens. Examples of low impact development techniques include replacing paved surfaces with native grasses or gardens; creating a planted or “green” roof; and collecting rainwater for landscape irrigation use. These practices can increase groundwater recharge, diminish erosion and reduce the amount of pollutants delivered to waterways by rainwater. If cities around the Bay are filled with structures that capture and filter stormwater, the amount of polluted runoff to the Bay can be significantly reduced.

Stormwater runoff is a low-profile but high-impact source of pollution to our waterways. San Francisco Baykeeper is working to reduce the negative effects of stormwater runoff as an essential step toward keeping the Bay watershed clean.

How you can help:

  • Limit your pesticide and fertilizer use. Pesticides can harm aquatic life such as fish and amphibians, and fertilizer releases phosphorus into our waterways, which can cause algal blooms that deplete oxygen and block sunlight in the water.
  • Check your vehicles for fuel and oil leaks. When it rains, grease and oil drippings wash into storm drains and end up in our waters.
  • Don’t wash your car in your driveway or street. Instead, clean your car at a do-it-yourself car wash site where the water is diverted to the wastewater treatment plant. Soap, dirt and oils from washing your car can harm fish and animals if it goes straight in the storm drain.
  • Dispose of any potentially toxic products – such as leftover yard chemicals, paints, batteries and household cleaners – at a household hazardous waste collection facility. Don’t pour potentially toxic products down the drain or street gutters.
  • Use a mop or broom, not a hose, to clean up outdoor spills, debris and yard clippings.
  • Clean up litter and trash when you see it and make sure that you keep the lids on your trash and recycle bins firmly closed.
  • Use ashtrays. Cigarette butts are one of the most common types of trash found on our beaches.
  • Pick up after your pet. Bacteria, parasites and viruses from pet waste can easily wash into storm drains and end up in the Bay without being treated.
  • Support increased funding for your city’s clean stormwater programs.

Photo: Gail Odom