Trash Pollution at MLK Shoreline is Out of Control

Volunteers in background, Feb. 2, 2023

Buckets and gloves are not enough, according to volunteers who have been picking up trash in the marsh wetlands at Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline for years.

“I’ve been cleaning this shoreline since 2018,” said Alameda resident Jim DuPont.  “It’s like Groundhog Day.  We clean, it rains, and the trash from Oakland streets covers the shoreline again.”

The 748-acre regional shoreline, located on San Leandro Bay near the Oakland Airport, includes wetland habitat, bike and pedestrian trails, a wildlife sanctuary, and diverse recreational opportunities.  Five waterways — two creeks, two sloughs, and a channel — flow into the park and San Leandro Bay. 

The East Bay Regional Park District leases this land from the Port of Oakland.  The purpose of the park is to protect what remains of the Oakland Estuary marshland.  “It may be protected from development but certainly not from trash,” said DuPont.

storm drain

The ongoing problem of trash entering storm drains in Oakland and then ending up at the shoreline is bigger than park workers and volunteers can ever hope to keep in check.

In-stream trash capture

An immediate practical solution is for the City of Oakland and the East Bay Regional Park District to partner and install in-stream trash-capture devices at points where the creeks and sloughs enter the marshland, which will prevent most trash from entering San Leandro Bay in the first place.  These trash-capture devices, such as Litter Gitter and Trash Trout, are used effectively on streams around the country.

The in-stream trash-capture devices have a floating boom that spans the width of a stream or drainage canal.  This boom funnels floating trash into a cage in the middle of the boom where it is captured.  Periodically the cages need to be emptied.

“The trash outflow from the creeks is an emergency,” said Patricia Lamborn, who along with DuPont has picked up and bagged hundreds of pounds of trash along the shoreline between the Tidewater Staging Area and the East Creek Slough.  “It’s destroying the Bay water quality and wildlife habitat!”

Wetland habitat restoration

If trash-capture devices are installed at the outflows into San Leandro Bay, the East Bay Regional Park District can then embark on a total restoration of these plastic and trash-infused marsh areas.

Cleaning up the plastic bags, food packaging, and thousands of odd remains of consumer products that litter the shoreline now will make the marsh look prettier to people from a distance, but it will not prevent the existing embedded bits of plastic from entering the marine food chain.  These tiny particles are enmeshed in a mat of vegetation going down a foot deep.  And who knows what is in the mud underneath the vegetation.

Plastic that is too small or too deep to retrieve by hand is gradually eroded by the sun and tides into microplastic particles.  The only way to remove these particles is to excavate the plastic-laden mat of vegetation and replant the marsh.  Anything less dooms the marine life and birds that rely on the marsh to a diet supplemented by plastic.

In-street trash capture

“We need long-term upstream solutions too,” Lamborn said.  “Oakland needs to drastically increase the number of screens in its street storm drain catch basins throughout the city.”

Whatever Oakland is currently doing is not working to keep our waterways clean.  On paper, the city is 100 percent in compliance with the Water Board’s trash-reduction program, which suggests that the laws are completely inadequate to the task.

Oakland now gets about 57 percent credit toward compliance by doing routine maintenance, such as street sweeping, cleanup of illegal dumping and homeless encampments, and other on-land cleanup efforts.  Occasional volunteer creek and shoreline cleanups account for another 10 percent.  Only 11.6 percent of compliance comes from permanent preventative infrastructure like full trash-capture systems installed in storm drain basins on city streets.  The Water Board’s storm water program says nothing about what to do once the trash enters a flowing creek or slough owned by a city.

“You’d think our regulators and leaders would be as appalled as we are and do something,” DuPont said.  “But nothing is changing.”

The parkland at Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline can be accessed at the Tidewater Boating Center near the Oakland side of the High Street Bridge or from Doolittle Drive & Swan Way after you leave the island toward the Oakland Airport.

Originally published in the Alameda Post

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