Cleanup coordinator Katie Noonan, far right, with other volunteers at a previous year's Creek to Bay Day in Oakland. Credit: Katie Noonan

Cleaning up Oakland’s creeks and shoreline may be one of the best ways for residents to connect with each other while restoring the environment. While lots of locals volunteer to pick trash from Lake Merritt and other waterways every day, there’s a couple of big days each year when the city urges everyone to take part. One is Oakland’s Creek to Bay Day, which takes place this year on September 23. The city is urging people to sign up now to take part. 

““You’ll find many friendly people and it’s an enjoyable activity to do with others,” said Mark Arniola, an Environmental Program Supervisor at Oakland’s Public Works department. “Even on rainy days, we’ve had good turnouts. We’ve had friendships that come out of it,” 

Volunteers don’t just pick up trash from lakes and other waterways, they also report on the quantity and type of trash they find. This helps the city better understand how to approach regular waterway cleanups for the rest of the year. 

There are several ways to take part in Creek to Bay Day. You can be a site coordinator and work with city staff to manage the clean-ups and guide volunteers. There is usually one site coordinator for each location where a clean-up is taking place. Last year, there were 24 different clean-up sites, and about the same number are expected this year. The city is currently seeking applicants for this role.

If you just want to volunteer by showing up and putting in some work cleaning a creek or wetland, registration will open on September 4. 

The city told us that nearly 800 volunteers came out to last year’s event. That figure is about half the number of volunteers that came up in the years before the pandemic. The more volunteers show up, the more the waterways will benefit. 

Members of local environmental groups like the Rotary Nature Center Friends tend to serve in coordinator positions. These groups’ experienced volunteers are familiar with safety guidelines, like how to dispose of organic matter or needles. Arniola said that people who are not part of these groups can still sign up to become coordinators and that the city provides them with training.

Katie Noonan, a former Oakland High School teacher and co-chair of Rotary Nature Center Friends, has been working as a coordinator for Creek to Bay Day for more than 20 years. She said it’s one of Oakland’s best opportunities for educating the general public and young people in particular about the importance of wildlife and how to maintain a clean and sustainable environment. 

“It helps people see what is going on with [our creeks and lakes] and it’s a way to teach kids about art, science, and sustainability in Oakland,” Noonan said. “It’s a celebration of community and taking care of our home. Especially now with climate change and the way it’s impacting us. It’s an important learning experience.” 

Over the past few years, Noonan has focused on cleaning up the area between the geodesic dome at Lake Merritt and the nearby Boathouse. That area, whose natural shoreline has been restored using Measure DD funds, has self-guided “teaching tour” signs explaining the importance of salt marshes as well as their connection to the Native American Ohlone people, whose land we live on today. Noonan said she’ll be in and around this spot for Creek to Bay Day if anyone wants to talk to her. 

“We’re going to replace plants that died, think about which native plants might work there, and we want to remove weeds that are obscuring the view,” she said. 

Oakland also uses Creek to Bay Day to highlight other volunteer opportunities for people who want to play a more consistent role in beautifying city parks and creeks.

On the Creek to Bay Day webpage, there are links to Oakland’s Adopt a Spot program, where residents can commit to cleaning up a specific greenspace or watershed infrastructure like a storm drain, sidewalk, or park. The work may include cutting weeds, placing art on trash containers, or working with the city’s Public Works department for more extensive repairs. 

Several parks already have plans for the Creek to Bay Day clean-up efforts. Community leaders who take care of Frog Park in the Rockridge neighborhood, for example, are going to rake up leaves, prune shrubs, and pick up garbage from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. 

While the city would prefer for people to sign up on its website for these types of activities ahead of time, the Facebook page for Frog Park notes that people can show up on Saturday at the park and register to help out. Volunteers should bring their own gardening gloves if they are able to. There will be coffee and snacks available. 

Creek to Bay Day is a city program that is part of the state’s California Cleanup Day, which has been around for nearly 40 years, and International Coastal Cleanup Day, which includes events all around the world, including in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. 

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.