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Trash Pollution at MLK Shoreline is Out of Control

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.”

Video by Richard Bangert.



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.

Alameda Post – East Creek Slough looking north, with Oakport Street and Hwy. 880 bridges in the background.
East Creek Slough looking north, with Oakport Street and Hwy. 880 bridges in the background. Photo Irene Dieter.

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.

Alameda Post - pollution in the wetland in San Leandro Bay
Wetland in San Leandro Bay at the mouth of the East Creek Slough in Martin Luther King, Jr. Regional Shoreline, as seen on February 7, 2023. Doolittle Drive and the East End of Alameda are in the distant background. Photo Richard Bangert.

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. The cages need to be emptied periodically.

“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

Alameda Post - Trash litters wildlife habitat being used by Marbled Godwits and Elegant Terns resting on mudflat
Trash litters wildlife habitat being used by Marbled Godwits and Elegant Terns resting on mudflat in center of photo on February 7, 2023. Alameda is in the distant right background. Photo Richard Bangert.

 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.”

Alameda Post - Marbled Godwits and gulls forage for food in the trash-strewn mudflat near East Creek Slough in San Leandro Bay
Marbled Godwits and gulls forage for food in the trash-strewn mudflat near East Creek Slough in San Leandro Bay on February 6, 2023. Photo Richard Bangert.

Whatever Oakland is currently doing is not working to keep our waterways clean. On paper, the city is 100% 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% 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% credit. Only 11.6% of compliance comes from permanent preventative infrastructure such as 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.”

Alameda Post - Typical sample of trash floating along the shoreline near East Creek Slough in San Leandro Bay.
Typical sample of trash floating along the shoreline near East Creek Slough in San Leandro Bay. Photo Richard Bangert.

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 as you leave Alameda island toward the Oakland Airport.

Contributing writer Irene Dieter’s articles are collected at alamedapost.com/Irene-Dieter, and she posts stories and photos about Alameda to her site, I on Alameda.

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