San Francisco Bay’s water quality improves after long-term cleanup efforts

David Rodriguez/Staff

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Recently, the water quality in the San Francisco Bay has been showing signs of improvement, partly thanks to decades of environmental cleanup efforts.

Bill Keener, a research biologist at Golden Gate Cetacean Research, spotted harbor porpoises returning to the bay about 10 years ago — today, they can be seen in the bay on a daily basis. Keener credits the improvements in water quality to state and federal clean water acts and decades of efforts by organizations such as Save the Bay.

“In many ways, mammals are a secondary indicator of the health of the bay,” said Cara Field, a veterinarian at The Marine Mammal Center. “The mammals go to where there is more prey available and the prey are found where the water is better.”

Nonprofit environmental advocacy organization San Francisco Baykeeper, or SF Baykeeper, is in its 29th year of working to improve the bay’s water quality. The organization monitors industrial pollution, stormwater runoff, wastewater and sewage spills, and enforces regulations and permits that are part of state and federal environmental law.

“First we notify polluters if we find a violation,” said Sejal Choksi-Chugh, executive director and baykeeper of SF Baykeeper. “We have a team of scientists too that can help bring the facility into compliance, and then we follow closely and work with them for three years.”

The East Bay Municipal Utility District, or EBMUD, addressed pollution from stormwater and sewage overflow with public information campaigns about materials that can clog sewer lines. EBMUD also works with cities to improve leaky feeder lines that can overwhelm the treatment facility with stormwater, according to Eileen White, director of wastewater at EBMUD.

“We take the San Francisco Bay very seriously and we are proud of our partnerships,” White said.

The city of Berkeley has undertaken efforts to address pollution by collecting runoff and filtering it through bioswales, landscape features that help to remove pollutants from water, before the runoff drains into waterways.

Berkeley has installed a number of these systems, which also reduce flooding during heavy rains, according to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko. A new project planned for King School Park that will filter water running into Codornices Creek has an estimated cost of $1.2 million.

Choksi-Chugh said that although there have been improvements in visible pollutants such as raw sewage and trash, invisible pollutants such as mercury and PCBs that accumulate up food chains and harm wildlife are still a major concern. Choksi-Chugh said freshwater flows also affect the health of the bay.

“Our vision is an SF Bay that is wilder and teeming with wildlife like the olden days where people can recreate and not worry about toxic pollutants when they eat the fish,” Choksi-Chugh said.

Contact Ryan Geller at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @rashadgeller.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Berkeley has installed systems that improve flooding during heavy rains. In fact, the systems reduce flooding.