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California: Water Quality, Trash Removal and Marine Debris

Jared Blumenfeld,
U.S. EPA Administrator,
for the Pacific Southwest

This summer, the U.S. EPA approved California’s latest list of impaired waters, threatened predominantly by polluted run-off. Much progress has been made in protecting California’s surface waters. With help from state and local partners, EPA is working hard to maintain, restore and protect thousands of miles of lakes, streams and rivers central to our economy, environment and public health.

One pollutant that California has taken huge strides to address is trash. Man-made artificial waste, mostly plastics, can easily flow from streets and storm drains into streams and rivers, eventually ending up in the ocean, where it becomes marine debris. Those plastic straws and bags can endanger marine and coastal wildlife, cause navigation hazards, result in economic losses to industry and governments, and threaten human health and safety.

Fortunately, many cities and states around the country are taking bold steps to stem this tide of trash. In the past decade, Los Angeles, for example, has reduced 70 to 75 percent of the debris entering the L.A. River basin by installing new trash removal devices; totaling about 1 million pounds of trash that no longer enter the ocean. Also, last September, California became the first U.S. state to sign into law a bill prohibiting stores from handing out free plastic bags.

EPA is working had to prevent trash from entering our waterways. For instance, the agency is helping California to set limits on the amount of trash entering our waters after it rains, and to require the installation of trash capture and removal devices in stormwater systems. In addition, EPA is partnering with universities to develop a toolkit to reduce marine debris on campuses. In the past several years, local universities, such as UC Santa Barbara (which demonstrated a 97 percent decline in plastic bag use), UC San Diego (which eliminated more than 1 million plastic bags and straw sleeves annually), and UC San Francisco (which reduced plastic water bottle purchasing by 50 percent), have shown enormous leadership and success in minimizing plastic waste.

Since marine debris is a global challenge, it takes international collaboration to combat it. Under EPA’s U.S.-Mexico Border 2020 Program, the agency is working with local, state and federal partners in the U.S. and Mexico to reduce ocean-bound debris from entering the Tijuana River Estuary National Estuarine Research Reserve, one of the border’s most scenic and ecologically sensitive coastal marine habitats. We also continue to work with our Mexican counterpart, SEMARNAT, and nonprofit groups, to educate residents in Tijuana on proper trash disposal, to repurpose plastic bottles for use in cement walls, and to organize trash cleanup events. Since 2010, more than 13,000 volunteers have removed nearly 4,000 waste tires and more than 200 tons of trash from the Tijuana River watershed. In August 2015, we announced funding to Surfrider Foundation to extend its Ocean Friendly Restaurant initiative into Tijuana to replace single-use plastic utensils and Styrofoam containers in restaurants with biodegradable alternatives.

These efforts highlight some of the great work being done to control and minimize trash going into waterways, which limits marine debris and benefits our oceans. The need for effective and resilient stormwater control and treatment will only intensify as we brace for a changing climate. While total rainfall is expected to decrease, the intensity of individual storms is expected to increase. The result will be higher accumulations of pollutants getting swept away with greater force. These projections make it more important than ever to work together to find and fund innovative solutions.

California’s Water Resources Control Board has already developed cleanup plans for more than 50,000 river miles and 160,000 lake acres, restoring critical drinking water sources, recreation destinations and fish habitat across the state from Lake Tahoe to San Diego Creek. We will continue to build upon the successes of all of our partners to protect our streams, lakes and oceans as we face both new and ongoing environmental challenges in the years to come.

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