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Bay Area Residents Embrace Effort to Prevent Flooding, Clean Waterways

Numerous cities in the San Francisco Bay Area now have “Adopt a Drain” programs where volunteers help keep storm drains clear of debris, improving water quality and preventing flooding.

Written by Robin Meadows Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Drains are filled with water as another in a series of storms passes over the Central Coast of California on January 18, 2017, in Solvang, California. A program in the Bay Area encourages residents to Adopt a Drain to help prevent local flooding during heavy rain.George Rose/Getty Images

Oakland resident Peter Crigger knows that the street where he has lived for decades is prone to flooding during a big rain. “Water comes down the hillside so hard that it clogs the storm drains with dirt, rocks and branches – then all this water comes shooting down the street and, since the drains are full, it floods,” he said.

Instead of just complaining, Crigger decided to do something about it: A couple of years ago, he formally adopted six storm drains in his neighborhood through Oakland’s “Adopt a Drain” program. The city provides guidelines and gear for basic drain maintenance, and sends storm alerts via email. Crigger checks his adoptees every time he drives by, shoveling and sandbagging as needed. “Even with heavy rains I gear up, go to the drains and unclog them, and replace or repair the sandbags,” said Crigger, a retired administrator at University of California, San Francisco, whose responsibilities included emergency operations.

Keeping storm drains clear has other benefits as well. Flooding during storms can overwhelm sewer systems, allowing sewage to leak into streets and houses. And most Bay Area storm drains feed directly into waterways, dumping trash into streams, the San Francisco Bay and the ocean. The exception is San Francisco, where the storm drain and sewer systems are combined and all the water is treated.

In addition to the six close to his home, Crigger has adopted two storm drains near Oakland’s Short Line Pocket Park and checks them monthly. He had already adopted the park as a member of the Hillside Gardeners of Montclair and, along with his wife Joey Hansell, is a member of the League of Women Voters of Oakland.

While Crigger is something of a super-volunteer, he’s in good company when it comes to adopting storm drains. By late 2017, more than 900 volunteers had adopted 1,200 of them in Oakland. Established in 2003 as part of the city’s Adopt a Spot program – which also includes parks, creeks and shorelines – the Adopt a Drain program got a boost in 2013 from OpenOakland, a nonprofit that connects computer programmers with city staff. OpenOakland volunteers launched a website with a map of the storm drains that have been adopted and those that are available for adoption.

“It made it easy for people to see and adopt drains – the program went from a handful to hundreds of volunteers,” said Mike Perlmutter, environmental stewardship team supervisor in the Oakland public works department. With more than 10,000 storm drains and only 17 employees to maintain them (along with the hundreds of miles of underground pipes they feed into), the department appreciates the help. “It’s a big benefit to the city, especially during a big storm,” Perlmutter said, adding, “Being able to mobilize hundreds of people can prevent a lot of flooding.”

The success of Oakland’s program served as a model for San Francisco’s Adopt a Drain program, which was established in 2016. San Francisco has 25,000 storm drains and more than 2,000 have been adopted. Other Bay Area cities with formal drain adoption programs include Berkeley, Fairfield, Pittsburg, San Leandro, Santa Clara and South San Francisco.

Trash collects on Ballona Creek in Los Angeles County after a rainfall. A Bay Area program encourages residents to “adopt” neighborhood drains to help keep them clear of debris and trash that would otherwise end up in waterways. (Education Images/Citizens of the Planet/UIG via Getty Images)

Perlmutter hopes to spread the word more widely. “Our dream is to build it out throughout the Bay,” he said.

Recent water quality regulations could help provide the extra push needed. “The Water Board is requiring all cities on the Bay to reduce trash in waterways to essentially zero,” he explained, referring to a 2009 San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board regulation that gives cities until 2022 to comply. (For more on this regulation, see “Keeping Waterways Trash-Free” in the April/May 2016 edition of the Monitor.)

The key is finding a way to quantify how much trash Adopt a Drain volunteers remove. “That will make the program more appealing to cities because they can get credit with the Water Board for the trash reduction,” Perlmutter said. He envisages an Adopt a Drain app for volunteers to report how much trash they remove. The cumulative impact of all those individual contributions can be huge. Oakland has reduced trash in waterways by 70 percent, and volunteers accounted for 10 percent of that reduction. “Volunteers at events like Earth Day and Coastal Cleanup Day divert thousands and thousands of gallons of trash,” Perlmutter said.

The best approach is to prevent trash going down storm drains in the first place. Trash is “so much easier to stop at the drain than to pull out a creek,” said Kimra McAffee, executive director of Friends of Sausal Creek, which organizes quarterly cleanups. Bay Area-wide, more than 130 creeks drain into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, San Francisco Bay or the ocean.

Fed by springs in the Oakland hills, Sausal Creek flows year-round to the tidal canal between Oakland and Alameda, and from there to the Bay. And even though the creek system is only 5-6 miles (8-10km) long, it has nearly 300 storm drain outlets. And, noted McAffee, “one outlet can have many, many inlets.” For Sausal Creek, those storm drain inlets include the six that Peter Crigger maintains in his neighborhood via the Adopt a Drain program.

McAffee is a big fan of the program. “It’s something you can do if you’re not a joiner – you can do it on your own, in your own neighborhood,” she said. The opportunity to volunteer as an individual rather than during a group cleanup removes one potential barrier to environmentally friendly behavior. But there are many other barriers.

Notably, even people who want to help can be intimidated by the unfamiliar. That means it may not be enough for cities to simply explain environmental volunteer programs on their websites. “That’s a tough way to learn – most people learn socially, so you can’t conflate information with education,” said Nicole Ardoin, a Stanford University researcher who studies environmental education and behavior. She recommends holding community engagement days where people show others how to, for example, clean storm drains.

She has also found that people who adopt environmentally friendly behaviors do more than help the world; they also help themselves. “They feel more connected to their communities and the broader natural world around them,” Ardoin said.

Since Crigger adopted the storm drains in his neighborhood, none of the 13 houses nearby have flooded. “I have great neighbors and am happy to help them,” he said. He also finds joy in it: “I get to play in the water like a big puddle – it’s fun to jump in.”

This story first appeared on the Bay Area Monitor.

Robin Meadows covers water for the Monitor.

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