Caltrans can’t keep trash out of the bay, Silicon Valley activists say
Caltrans workers cleaning litter near the northbound Highway 680 Berryessa Road on-ramp. Photo courtesy of Caltrans / John Huseby.

Environmentalists are concerned Caltrans isn’t doing enough to keep trash from washing off its properties into the San Francisco Bay.

The state transportation department has been under a cease and desist order since 2019 requiring it to reduce trash over the next seven years. The order covers more than 8,000 acres of its property in the Bay Area, including the South Bay. The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board issued the order following widespread community outrage about Caltrans failing to pick up trash polluting local waterways.

Caltrans officials have said they are taking various compliance actions, but environmental advocates claim the agency is dragging its feet. They say Caltrans’ inaction is putting strain on cities such as San Jose, which end up having to pick up trash the agency should collect.

“The bad news is they have not moved very quickly to design, approve and implement projects that would actually capture this trash in stormwater,” David Lewis, executive director of environmental group Save The Bay, told San José Spotlight. “Nor, as far as we know, have they significantly increased trash removal from highways.”

Caltrans did not provide information requested by San José Spotlight.

San Jose and Santa Clara County officials recently criticized Caltrans for failing to maintain South Bay highways. During a February meeting, Dina El Tawansy, director of Caltrans District 4 which covers most of the Bay Area, said staffing is a problem in the region and the agency has struggled to recruit for local maintenance crews.

Former San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales, who previously served on the Save The Bay board, told San José Spotlight the problem of trash on local highways seems to have gotten worse in recent years.

“I find it despicable,” he said. “It’s shameful we have to view these things as not only we commute through our city, but outsiders too—and they form opinions about our community.”

He said local officials are limited in what they can do because they have no authority over how Caltrans spends its resources, including the roads it oversees in Santa Clara County.

A deluge of microplastics

Environmentalists say highways are a major source of water pollution, including microplastics—tiny particles of plastic derived from textiles and rubber. Rain washes microplastics off roads and into storm drains, where they eventually end up in the bay and are consumed by marine life.

“When an animal ingests microplastics it can cause abrasion in their digestive tracks, or give animals a false sense of being full, so they’re not ingesting their real food and getting nutrition they need,” Lisa Erdle, director of research and innovation at environmental organization 5 Gyres Institute, told San José Spotlight.

Erdle said studies conducted by 5 Gyres and the San Francisco Estuary Institute found higher levels of microplastics contamination in the San Francisco Bay compared to other parts of the world. She said this is likely because water circulation in the bay is relatively contained. Erdle said rain gardens—earthen swales that absorb water—are known to be effective at capturing small plastic particles. She noted there are also devices that can capture macroplastic, such as bottle caps and other common trash on roads.

It’s difficult to calculate how much trash generated on Caltrans properties ends up in the bay, partly because some of it is washed into municipal stormwater systems, where it mixes with debris from city streets. Lewis said one of the most effective ways for Caltrans to address the trash problem is to either build or pay cities to create devices that capture trash in the stormwater system.

San Jose has 32 of these systems in place—referred to as large trash capture hydrodynamic separator devices. San Jose spokesperson Carolina Camarena told San José Spotlight four of these devices were installed through an agreement with Caltrans, and they are located on Parkmoor Avenue, Dupont Street, Blossom Hill Road/Shadowcrest Way and Melody Lane/North 33rd Street.

“These devices treat a total of 355.74 acres of Caltrans right-of-way,” Camarena said, adding the four devices installed with Caltrans have captured approximately 200 tons of trash since 2018.

Lewis said these joint projects are effective and relatively cheap. But he claims Caltrans slowed down on producing these projects during the pandemic. He noted it’s within the power of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board to penalize Caltrans if it’s not in compliance with the cease and desist order, but he hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“That’s not the goal—the goal is to actually get the work done,” Lewis said.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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