A steady sequence of winter storms alleviates concerns of drought, but inclement weather can exacerbate pollution and wash copious amounts of city trash into the Oakland Estuary.
Few are more intimately familiar with the severity of the situation than Mary Spicer, a local advocate.
“It’s a garbage apocalypse,” declared Spicer, who founded “I Heart Oakland Alameda Estuary” in 2016 to clean up the shorelines of the Estuary.
In partnership with California Canoe & Kayak, East Bay Rowing Club (EBRC), the City of Oakland, and the Oakland Parks and Recreation Foundation, Spicer has organized countless group, school, and corporate cleanup efforts that have collectively removed more than 6,000 pounds of garbage from the waterway. Volunteers typically climb into skiffs donated by EBRC with garbage bags and paddle in teams to clean up locations on the waterfront that are difficult to access by land. Editor’s note: Updated 02-16-24 to include EBRC’s contributions.
In March 2023, Spicer took the Alameda Post on an eye-opening tour of several sites near Brooklyn Basin and Jack London Square where garbage had accumulated following relentless winter storms. The shores of Clinton Basin and the Fifth Avenue Marina were littered with glass bottles, aluminum cans, a wide array of plastic containers and cups, and entire garbage bags filled to the brim with unknown refuse.
“This is not acceptable. Volunteers should not be the front line of defense picking up needles and poop.” – Mary Spicer
More troubling were the discarded drug needles, home appliances, leaking gasoline cans, and other hazardous materials that lay out in the open, easily accessible by Estuary wildlife.
“Our environment should not have to take this hit,” Spicer lamented. “It’s not fair for the animals who live on and around this.”
Spicer acknowledged that her efforts can only go so far in tackling a monumental, seemingly never-ending problem and has worked tirelessly to assemble an “inter-jurisdictional litter group composed of community partners and local agencies who would join forces to clean up the Estuary. Longer-term solutions could include storm drain and other infrastructure upgrades in Oakland and Alameda to capture trash before it drains into waterways. Editor’s note: Updated 02-16-24 to more accurately reflect Spicer’s efforts.
“This is not acceptable. Volunteers should not be the front line of defense picking up needles and poop,” said Spicer. “It’s beyond volunteer capacity.”
Critical help could be on the way. At the January 24 Enforcement Committee meeting of the San Francisco Bay Conservation & Development Commission (BCDC), Deputy City Administrator Joe DeVries announced that Oakland is in the process of applying for a multimillion dollar grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program.
Thanks to Spicer’s efforts, Oakland is seeking $2 million to fund its partnership with “I Heart Oakland Alameda Estuary,” which would take the lead in conducting quarterly shoreline cleanups and creating public outreach and education campaigns to raise awareness of the impact of marine debris.
“My hope is that bringing people to the shoreline and educating our Oakland youth in particular about the importance of keeping our shoreline healthy long-term, that’s how we’re going to sustain these efforts,” explained DeVries.
Another $2 million would be earmarked for addressing the ongoing issue of abandoned vessels and individuals anchored and living illegally in the Estuary.
Following community outcry and a wave of brazen thefts attributed to liveaboards, Oakland Police Department (OPD) announced a 90-day full-scale engagement and cleanup of the Estuary at an October 2023 community meeting. With the effort complete, Officer Kaleo Albino—the sole full-time officer on OPD’s Marine Patrol Unit—provided a status update to the Enforcement Committee.
The Unit first handed out notices in the fall before it transitioned into an enforcement mode, ultimately abating 25 vessels from the Estuary. Eighteen boats were pulled out of the Estuary and trucked away from the parking lot at the Jack London Aquatic Center, while seven vessels left on their own.
“We did make one key arrest related to the anchor-outs,” Albino explained. “I think that’s why most of the remaining vessels decided to pull anchor…because they knew that we were taking enforcement seriously.”
Next, Albino hopes to sustain the cleanliness of the waterway and retain staff to create a full-time Marine Patrol Unit that would be beneficial for both the Estuary and the Port of Oakland. This would allow the Unit to begin addressing up to 33 vessels currently docked in marinas that are at risk of unmooring due to owner neglect.
Funding from the NOAA grant would help bankroll this and other measures, such as a boat buy-back program, that would proactively prevent vessels from becoming abandoned. Resources would also be spent on removing up to 13 sunken vessels to completely clean out the Estuary. Meanwhile, the City of Alameda already has secured over $200,000 in grant funding for a Vessel Turn-In Program (VTIP) to help boat owners dispose of unwanted vessels.
City of Oakland and City of Alameda staff are expected to provide an update on Estuary cleanup efforts to the Enforcement Committee in the spring.