A homeless camp next to a creek in San Jose
A state water board has approved San Jose’s plan through 2027 to tackle homeless encampment trash going into city waterways. File photo.

The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board has green lit San Jose’s plan through 2027 to tackle homeless encampment trash going into city waterways — further ensuring the city’s compliance with environmental regulations.

Deputy City Manager Kip Harkness said at a Monday San Jose City Council meeting that the city is going to stop the endless cycle of cleaning up trash indefinitely by moving homeless residents off the waterways and blocking the area with barriers and signage. As more housing becomes available, they will move more residents off the waterways, he said.

“I think of it a little bit like pieces of a puzzle,” Harkness said at the meeting. “As we develop more housing, we’ll put the next piece of the puzzle down.”

Mayor Matt Mahan said Monday the city had to commit to a higher level of delivery in the fourth submission in order to meet the water board’s expectations.

“We’re incredibly grateful for the hard work of city staff, who have crafted a direct discharge plan that has been approved by the regional water board after three prior rejections,” the mayor’s spokesperson Tasha Dean told San José Spotlight. “Achieving compliance and restoring our waterways will require us to move over 1,000 people out of our creeks and into safe (and) managed alternatives, and we now have an ambitious, inter-departmental, multi-year plan to get it done.”

The city is facing a more than $50 million projected budget shortfall, Mahan said, and the environmental regulations are not cheap to address.

“The council and staff have done a really commendable job of figuring out what we need to do to comply with the Clean Water Act and address the immediate crisis on our streets and along our creeks while continuing to invest in affordable housing,” Mahan said at the meeting.

A slide from San Jose city officials' presentation on tackling waterway pollution along the creeks.
A slide from San Jose officials’ presentation Monday on tackling waterway pollution along the creeks.

San Jose’s deadline to reach 100% trash load reduction has also been pushed back from June 20, 2025 to Dec. 31, 2025. The city’s stormwater permit must be renewed with the water board in 2027 or it risks facing fines from legislation like the Clean Water Act.

Mary Morse, the city’s environmental services senior program manager, said Monday the Clean Water Act became law in 1972 to stop stormwater pollution and the Environmental Protection Agency delegates its authority to the state and its regional water boards.

“The water boards issue stormwater permits such as the municipal stormwater permit to the 79 California municipalities and the flood control agencies,” she said. “The first stormwater permit in the country was issued in San Jose.”

At another council meeting Tuesday, Dashiell Leeds, Sierra Club Loma Prieta chapter conservation organizer, said his group signed a joint letter in support of Mahan’s proposal to use Measure E funds for sheltering people along the waterway.

“This is an important, but temporary solution for the health of the creek,” Leeds said.

The mayor’s plan to redirect millions in Measure E funding was unanimously approved by councilmembers on Tuesday.

Harkness said the city is putting together a first-of-its-kind team specifically for addressing homelessness along the waterways and managing stormwater pollution. He likened the approach to the city’s COVID-19 pandemic response in the emergency operations center.

The plan was enough to win the approval of the water board, according to a June 3 letter where a spokesperson described the city’s proposals as, “expected to make reasonable, incremental progress toward addressing challenges associated with unsheltered homelessness, including providing housing and services and addressing water quality impacts.”

Contact Vicente Vera at [email protected] or follow @VicenteJVera on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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