April 1 2015 11:34 AM

San Diego eyes new regulatory effort

San Diego students from Innovations Academy outside City Hall after a City Council meeting discussing the plastic bag ban.

Two environmental policies that may define the longterm health of San Diego’s waterways are being evaluated at the local and state level: a San Diego plastic bag ban and amendments to the California State Water Board’s plan to keep the ocean trash-free.

Both policies are stirring up the water. 

Roger Kube

There have been several attempts to implement a city ban on plastic bags. The most recent effort was stalled by Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office waiting out SB270, the statewide bag ban that would have gone into effect in July. Now, though, that legislation is due up for a vote on the 2016 ballot, after aggressive campaigning by the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a consortium of plastic bag manufacturers.

Roger Kube, an advisor for San Diego Surfrider, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, said that by delaying the statewide vote, 16 billion plastic bags would be kept in circulation, with $150 million in profits for the manufacturers.

“It really sparks the debate,” Kube said. “It opens up people’s eyes to what’s wrong with a plastic bag and disposable plastic.”

San Diego could get ahead of the 2016 ballot. 

“Immediately after the referendum on the statewide plastic bag bill qualified for the ballot and halted the implementation of new regulations, I directed City staff to resume with the environmental review of San Diego’s proposed plastic bag ordinance,” Faulconer said in a statement.

Based on statistics gathered by San Diego Surfrider and San Diego Coastkeeper, another nonprofit environmental advocacy group, plastic bags make up 4 percent of the litter found during San Diego beach cleanups. But more are in the waters surrounding the city, Kube said, and there is no surefire way to count those bags. Kube is confident the mayor’s ban proposal will be voted in by the City Council in the next few months.

 Some backers of the state amendments to reduce garbage on beaches and in watersheds say passage would be a major step for California’s goal of reducing water pollution. 

However, the statewide trash amendments would supersede efforts by the city’s Transportation and Storm Water Department to drain waterways of pollutants. By city standards, garbage is not the highest priority, and the city is busy developing a plan that would diminish bacteria, using sophisticated catch systems.

Matt O'Malley

“The problem is a shorter timeline,” said department spokesperson Bill Harris about the trash amendments. “[It will] upend our efforts and be inefficient.”

Harris said in order to comply with the new policy, which will be voted on by the State Water Board on April 7, the city would have to make and manage a new system that specifically reduces trash in waterways within 10 years. It would become obsolete by the time the city needs to come into compliance, he said, while diverting time and resources from the bacteria reduction plan efforts, which should be finished by 2032.

The State Water Board’s policy is modeled after Los Angeles’ trash program, with a goal of no trash being present in any ocean waters, bays or surface waters, according to a California Coastkeeper Alliance statement.

“It’s obvious trash is a major problem in our waterways,” said San Diego Coastkeeper representative Matt O’Malley. “It’s another thing that people will have to address with their stormwater system.”

Carly can be reached at carlyn@sdcitybeat.com. Follow her on Twitter at @cnairnsf