Octa's transportation blog

What’s Being Done to Stop Trash from Flushing into the Ocean

This article from the Orange County Register highlights OCTA’s Measure M-funded Environmental Cleanup Program, which helps improve overall water quality in Orange County by protecting it from transportation-generated pollution.

As storms soak Southern California and runoff from the rain rushes down rivers and channels, water isn’t the only thing flowing into the ocean.

Trash and debris, pet poop, toxic chemicals and pesticides all get flushed from streets, gutters and sewers, flowing into channels, creeks and, eventually, the ocean. Piles of debris dump onto beaches, not only creating an unsightly landfill-like seascape, but also a hazard for sea creatures and birds that mistake the trash for a treat.

“Trash severely threatens habitat and wildlife, causes entanglement, makes habitat unsuitable, (it) has human health impacts – there’s all kinds of gross reasons trash isn’t welcome in our waters and shouldn’t get there,” said Lauren Chase, staff attorney for Orange County Coastkeepers and Inland Empire Waterkeeper. “Storm water trash transport is the No. 1 source, the main pathway.”

There have been more efforts in recent years to stop trash from entering rivers and the ocean – from armies of volunteers stretching further and further inland to pick up trash at its source to millions spent on solutions to block debris from being washed away, but most would agree – especially following the recent storms that have again littered the region’s beaches with heaps of trash – there’s still a ways to go.

Flood channels, trash channels

Throughout the state, concrete channels were built decades ago to transport the water from heavy rains straight to the ocean, helping to direct and contain the gushing water to avoid flooding streets and neighborhoods.

“We’re basically a desert, we get flash floods. That’s why the channels were built the way they were – they were designed to carry large volumes of water that comes suddenly,” said Kim Buss, senior environmental resources specialist for OC Public Works. “The idea was to keep it away from the properties and (direct it) into the ocean, where it eventually would be headed anyway.”

The Santa Ana River funnels water (and therefore trash) from communities stretched over 2,700 square miles, from the mountains to the sea. The San Gabriel River to the north receives drainage from 689 square miles of eastern Los Angeles County and releases into the ocean at the border of Long Beach and Seal Beach. To the south, the San Juan Creek flows toward Doheny State Beach.

A series of floods that cost hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage – and more than 100 deaths – at the turn of the century prompted officials to channelize the Los Angeles River. The Ballona Creek closer to the South Bay flows to the Marina del Rey harbor.

As populations boomed throughout Southern California more trash was getting tossed onto freeways and streets and left in parks, building up in gutters and sewers during dry times and getting washed by the rain to the coast through the elaborate system of underground storm drains that funnel into the major channels.

Buss recalls starting her job in 2010, just as a mega storm sent piles of trash to the mouth of the Santa Ana River – shopping carts, couches, clothes, heaps of trash as far as the eye could see.

She showed pictures to her family, she said, telling them: “This is what I’m getting rid of.”

While trash still builds up inland and flows to the ocean following storms, there has been progress, she said.

“The first flush this year, it was nothing compared to that,” she said. “I hope we will never see that again.”

Blocking the trash flush

The State Water Resources Control Board in 2015 said every city, county and water agency must have a system in place by December 2030 at the latest, to prevent all trash larger than a cigarettes butt from getting to waterways, said Edward Ortiz, spokesman for the agency.

A number of options exist, including a physical screen on storm drains or a vortex separation system underground where a bunch of different drains meet up, as well as and using street cleaners to fill in voids.

Coastkeeper officials said the policy makes California the first state in the country to set a clear path to stopping the flow of trash to the ocean, bays and rivers.

“Something has to change. What we’re doing now, it’s not working,” Chase said. “You can see that anytime after the rain, there’s no denying it.”

It’s hard to know what each city has done so far or plans to do as the upcoming 2030 deadline looms, but that will become clearer this year as many go to their regional water boards for permit renewals, to which the new requirements are attached, Chase said. She said she expects some agencies to challenge the new rules.

“There will be more publicly accessible information available to track progress,” she said. “There will be benchmarks we can check.”

Municipalities are getting some help with the cost of upgrading so much infrastructure before the end of the decade.

Strides have been made in Orange County because of a water-quality program funded through Measure M, a half-cent sales tax approved by voters for transportation-related projects.

Since 2011, an estimated $33 million has been allocated for 212 water-quality projects across the county and, because of that, 45 million gallons of trash and pollutants have been kept from waterways.

That is worth celebrating, Orange County Transportation Authority CEO Darrell E. Johnson said. “At the same time, we recognize that it’s an ongoing effort and we need to continue working hard with our city partners to be good shepherds of our rivers and oceans while we keep Orange County moving.”

In November, another $3.1 million round of funding was approved for 13 projects.

In Los Angeles County, voters passed a bond specifically for its storm water program.

In the region that runs off into the Los Angeles River, about 6 million pounds of trash is captured each year with the 17,000 already installed full-capture trash systems, Ortiz noted. For the watershed feeding Ballona Creek, more than a million pounds of trash has been captured each year using 2,500 full-capture trash systems.

The Riverside City Council five years ago approved a plan on how the city will capture an estimated 38 tons of trash using several methods, including street sweeping, regular storm drain cleaning, physical devices, an Adopt-A-Drain program and Keep Riverside Clean and Beautiful program, said Mike Roberts, the city’s environmental services manager.

The city has already installed 10 different types of trash capture devices to understand their effectiveness and implications on maintenance, he said.

The Gateway Water Management Authority is an example of how a collective effort among 29 cities and water agencies from Montebello down to Long Beach work toward the common goal of addressing storm-water issues, while reducing costs, sharing ideas and creating a more efficient permitting process, said Grace Kast, executive officer for GWMA, which was founded in 2007 and serves 2 million people along the Lower Los Angeles River and Lower San Gabriel River watersheds.

One of its major wins was in 2011 when the Los Angeles River Trash Reduction Project was completed with a $10 million federal grant through the State Water Resources Control Board – it paid for 11,560 catch basin retrofits throughout 16 cities.

Orange County has already installed 2,188 full-trash capture devices in unincorporated areas and several cities have been proactive in installing similar devices, Buss said. “All of the other cities are being held to that 2030 timeline.”

“The cities, when they get up to speed, that will make a huge difference,” Buss said. “It’s a great program.”

Helping hands

In the meantime, throughout the year but especially following storms, an army of volunteers are ready to battle the mess. They slap on gloves and scoop up countless pieces of trash, from tiny plastics and cigarette butts to shopping carts and tires.

In Orange County, an “Adopt A Channel” program is gaining steam, doubling from 13 “adopters” in 2019 to 26 now – helpers who scoop up trash from 24 miles of flood control channels.

Last year alone, an estimated 10,581 pounds of trash was removed.

“It comes from people not putting their stuff in the right place,” Buss said. “People are still littering.”

Negotiations are underway with the Adopt-A-Highway program to help manage and expand the channels effort and the county has launched an adoptachanneloc.org website to encourage others to take part.

The Surfrider Foundation North Orange County chapter recently adopted the lower portion of the Santa Ana River, about a mile in length and what they call the “line of last defense” before runoff hits the ocean. Volunteers pulled about 4 tons from the river last year.

“That was just scratching the surface,” said John Wadsworth, the chapter’s co-chair.

Countless cleanups happen year-round from the mountains to the sea to help stop the flow of trash. The Rivers & Lands Conservancy in Riverside cleans the Santa Ana River in the Inland Empire and the Friends of the Los Angeles River last year removed 50,000 pounds of trash from 15 locations.

Coastkeeper in 2005 expanded its footprint to create the Inland Empire Waterkeeper, doing regular cleanups in the Santa Ana River around Riverside.

“It’s a recognition our entire watershed is connected,” Chase said.

Innovative solutions

There are also several out-of-the-box solutions floating around – quite literally – that cities and counties are testing out to see if they can help to better stop trash from getting into the ocean.

As the storms battered the region recently, Los Angeles County deployed its solar-powered “trash catcher,” the Ballona Creek Trash Interceptor 007. Since its launch in October, the device deployed at the mouth of the creek in Playa del Rey has stopped more than 42.5 tons of trash from reaching the ocean, according to the Los Angeles County Public Works Department.

The county’s partnership on the project with the device’s creator, nonprofit The Ocean Cleanup, is the first in the United States to use the system.

When flows are expected to carry trash down the creek, two booms are set out in a v-shape to catch the trash and feed it to the device that has storage bins. The last storm damaged one of the booms, but it is still able to catch some trash while a replacement is ordered and should be ready by February, said Steve Frasher, public information officer for LA County Public Works.

Similarly, Newport Beach is planning to install a $3 million trash wheel at the San Diego Creek just before it empties into the Back Bay. The city has also set up a boom to catch trash coming into the estuary from inland, collecting about 80 tons a year, and deploys eight marina trash skimmers in the bay that net up to 8 tons each year.

For coastal cities such as Newport Beach, being at the end of the urban runoff system where inland trash dumps into the ocean has created a lot of work. Some years, the city cleans up 800 tons of trash and debris from the beaches, said John Kappeler, senior engineer for the city.

Newport Beach’s price tag each year to clean up trash left by beachgoers and what washes from storm drains and the Santa Ana River is $1 million.

The beaches and the ocean are not just for the benefit of coastal communities, Chase emphasized. “It’s an area where people can go recreate and watch the wildlife, enjoy the sea air. This really is a concern for all.”

Chase did an impromptu solo cleanup at the end of the Santa Ana River following the recent storms and said it underscored the importance of all the efforts by volunteers and agencies trying to proactively protect the waterways.

She found heaps of trash, everything from plastic bottle tops, an open can with green ooze seeping out, Christmas ornaments and a half full bottle of olives, she said.

“The ocean is protected for everyone to enjoy,” she said. “It’s everyone’s ocean.”