Water Impacts and Regulations

Environmental Impact

Trash is a serious problem for water bodies in the San Francisco Bay, local creeks, estuaries, and the Pacific Ocean. Data suggest that plastic trash persists for hundreds of years in the environment and can pose a threat to wildlife through ingestion, entrapment, as well as harboring chemicals harmful to the aquatic environment.

Great Blue Heron swallows fish in plastic bag (photo by A. Westmoreland, Flickr. For more information, see EPA’s Trash-Free Waters.)

For more information:
List of Impaired Water Bodies in the SF Bay Region


Trash in the street, if left unmanaged, will enter the storm drain system and pollute local waterways (Photo by staff)

In response to concerns about urban trash impacts on water bodies in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (Water Board) identified over 20 creeks, rivers and shorelines as impaired by trash.

The Water Board requires trash load reduction goals of 80% in 2019 and “no visual impact” in 2022 in the Municipal Regional Stormwater Permit (MRP). This permit applies to Municipal Stormwater agencies in the Santa Clara Valley. To achieve the “no visual impact” goal, permittees must implement control measures and demonstrate effectiveness of those actions through assessment.
The Water Board also regulates trash pollution from other stormwater dischargers (e.g. Caltrans, Industrial/Construction) and non-stormwater sources (e.g. direct dumping). For more information, see the WMI website.

Multi-Agency Interest

Local storm drain management is carried out by:

  • Municipal Agencies – Local governments (city and county) work to meet trash reduction goals set forth in municipal permits issued by the State Water Board through controls measures and creek & shoreline cleanups.
  • Caltrans – The Water Board requires trash management through the Caltrans NPDES permit. In 2015 Caltrans submitted a Trash Load Reduction Work plan detailing plans for baseline litter assessment and enhancement of trash control measures.
  • Industrial and Construction Permittees – The Water Board issues NPDES Permits to Industrial Dischargers. These permits require development of Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plans (SWPPP), which may include control measures to reduce or prevent trash pollution in local creeks, the bay, and areas of special biological significance.

Non-municipal agency actions controlling trash in Santa Clara Valley
The Zero Litter Initiative brings together stakeholders including Caltrans, Non-Profits, and other Regional Agencies.