City Keeps Pollutants Out of Waterways Through Multi-Faceted Approach

The San Jose Environmental Services Department looks beyond standard stormwater management methods to keep waterways clean

City Keeps Pollutants Out of Waterways Through Multi-Faceted Approach

Kerrie Romanow, director of the San Jose Environmental Services Department

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Sources of waterway pollution can take many different forms. In recent years, the San Jose Environmental Services Department in California has been attempting to target each one in an effort to clean up waterways in the Santa Clara Valley.

Single-use plastic bags could often be found floating in area waterways, so they were banned in 2012. A 10-cent fee was also mandated for paper bags. Reusable bags were promoted as the preferred alternative for carrying merchandise and groceries home from a retailer. In 2012, an estimated 400 bags per resident ended up in litter-related trash, a figure that has now been slashed by 75 percent, according to Kerrie Romanow, department director.

“‘Bring your own bag’ has caught on,” she says.

Yet thin plastic bags are still an example of the type of trash that continues to find its way into freshwater streams that travel through the valleys on the mainland side of the Santa Cruz Mountains, which separate them from the Pacific Ocean. As of July 2017, the city had reduced the volume of trash entering those streams by almost 80 percent since the start of its cleanup effort eight years ago. That exceeded the 70 percent goal for 2017 and dramatically bettered the 54 percent reduction of just a year before.

Part of the solution has been development of trash capture systems, including hydrodynamic separators. Twenty-seven of the massive units have been installed. Water is diverted through the devices, which are engineered to swirl and screen water until trash and some granular pollutants are left behind.

In 2015, the city banned restaurant use of Styrofoam as food containers, which not only don’t degrade but also break into small pieces.

“I think what we did was cool,” says Sharon Newton, water testing program manager. “Beginning with a national chain, we showed them how they could use paper plates instead. We tracked pricing and showed them how they could package products for the same or less as foam, so conversion was not an economic hindrance.”

Another ongoing piece of the trash reduction solution is moving homeless residents from the banks of streams. The encampments are measurable sources of trash in waterways. The Environmental Services Department instituted what it calls a “direct discharge trash control program.” Working with other departments, the goal of the program is to reduce the homeless population along the waterways, dismantle encampment structures, clean up trash left behind by the campers, and patrol the areas to prevent new encampments.

As the department’s annual report puts it, “By reducing trash and reviving the health of San Jose urban creeks, the city will improve the appeal of creek open space for residents. Any vision of vibrant and healthy communities in San Jose must include revitalized waterways that support a healthier lifestyle for our city.”

Learn more about how San Jose is protecting its waterways from pollutants through its various stormwater management practices in the February issue of Municipal Sewer & Water magazine.


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