The brown and white sign along Bayfront Expressway in Menlo Park clearly describes the purpose of the open marshland: "Habitat Restoration Area — Environmentally Sensitive Area. Keep Out." But the 60-acre site known as the Ravenswood Triangle is anything but pristine. This year alone, the grass-and-marsh area, most of which is supposed to be protected habitat for endangered species, has been besieged by 23 fires. Since 2017, there have been 77 blazes, according to a report by the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.
The area, which is bounded by Adams Drive, Willow Road, Bayfront Expressway and University Avenue, is littered with debris: mounds of rusting bicycle parts, tires, toilet paper, discarded clothing, boxes, makeshift tents of cardboard, wood and plastic, and other detritus of human habitation. Pit toilets filled with human waste dot the green reeds and tall, tawny grasses hide trip wires that guard the entrance into the approximately 30 illegal homeless encampments, some hidden among shrubs and others dotting the landscape with bright blue tarps and flapping sheets of plastic.
Cars whizzed by on bustling Bayfront Expressway to the Dumbarton Bridge, down University Avenue and up Willow Road on May 22 as firefighters worked hotspots from a 10-acre fire. A flock of geese poked their heads up out of the reeds, watching intently as crews in yellow vests doused the smoke with hoses and a dozer cut fire breaks to prevent future fires from spreading quickly.
Offices and businesses at the Menlo Business Park, just steps away, abut the Triangle, and just beyond them are homes. Black scars across the land showed how close the flames came to licking the sides of the warehouses and buildings.
Commuters stuck in traffic get a ringside seat to the happenings in the marsh, but few likely know about the area's protected status and the pollution that seeps into the ground or that mingles with rainwater during winter storms and is carried away into San Francisco Bay. Pumps drain the area to keep it from flooding the business park — a concession after a long legal battle to protect the park from flooding during the storms.
The pollution being generated at the Triangle is a direct violation of the federal Clean Water Act, which prohibits so-called nonpoint source pollution — pollution that can enter waterways and storm drains from non-industrial sources where the point of discharge is more diffuse and not from a specific source such as a business.
But who takes responsibility for the mess and environmental degradation — and the safety of the homeless, whom fire officials fear could be injured or killed in a fast-moving fire?
Menlo Park fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman has been trying to get answers. The property is a patchwork of ownership and easements, among them San Mateo County Transportation Authority (SamTrans), the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), Pacific Gas & Electric, Facebook and the Kavanaugh-O'Brien tract.
The number of fires has been rising over the past few years, according to a May report from the fire district on the "Encampment Area on Bayfront from Willow, to University Ave." In 2017, the area had four fires. There were 19 blazes in 2018 and 31 in 2019.
About six weeks ago, Menlo Park Mayor Cecilia Taylor convened a subcommittee to address the issue after the May 22 blaze threatened nearby commercial structures. Finding solutions isn't easy, however. The Triangle and its homeless encampments are a thorny issue, said leaders of environmental groups.
The welfare of wildlife and the health of Baylands ecosystems is pitted against the very real human needs of people who have become homeless mainly due to a lack of affordable and low-income housing, health and mental health issues. As one environmental advocate put it, no one wants to simply kick the homeless out with no place for them to go.
Yet, their continued presence is compromising the health of the estuary and violating federal law. The site is not only within the boundary of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's wildlife recovery for the protected salt marsh harvest mouse and the California (Ridgway's) clapper rail, it is also adjacent to the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The Triangle's wetlands, now mostly dry, are fed by the Ravenswood Slough, which is connected to San Francisco Bay and adjacent wetlands areas.
Rhonda Coffman, Menlo Park deputy community development director, said in an email that public agencies such as Caltrans and SamTrans are responsible for Clean Water Act compliance.
"If we have information about encampments occurring on private property, we can investigate this further in regard to the monitoring (of) nonpoint source pollution or potential Clean Water Act violations," she said.
Caltrans is the largest property owner. The agency purchased about 47 acres in the Triangle for about $350,000 as part of 200 acres of wetlands on both sides of the bay for constructing the Dumbarton Bridge. The purchase was to offset loss of wetlands and tidal marsh taken for the bridge approaches, according to a 1988 mitigation report analysis of San Francisco Bay tideland restoration projects by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.
Caltrans further noted its responsibility last week.
"It, in part, compensates and provides habitat in perpetuity for the salt marsh harvest mouse and other various animals that would use the habitat," Caltrans District 4 said in an email through spokesman Alejandro Lopez.
As for what Caltrans is doing to protect its property from human habitation, fire, ecosystem degradation and nonpoint source pollution, Lopez said the site is not being cleaned during the coronavirus pandemic so that Caltrans' workers are not put in danger.
He did not respond to follow-up questions about why Caltrans allowed the encampments on its property far prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, nor did Caltrans respond to a question regarding the department's requirements for cleanup under the Clean Water Act and compliance with the Statewide Storm Water Permit and Waste Discharge requirements. The statewide 2015-19 Trash Provisions of the Water Quality Control Plan for Inland Surface Waters, Enclosed Bays, and Estuaries of California sets forth requirements for Caltrans to prevent significant trash discharge that could impact waterways through storm runoff.
On Feb. 13, 2019, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board voted unanimously to approve a "cease and desist" order against Caltrans to speed up trash removal through the year 2026 from 8,800 identified acres or face $25,000-a-day fines. Caltrans must also address trash in its other locations, identified by visual assessments to be conducted through 2030, according to the order. It's not clear if the Triangle is among the identified acreage.
In a January 2019 letter to the San Francisco Bay Regional Quality Control Board regarding the order, environmental advocates San Francisco Baykeeper noted the reticence of public enforcement agencies to clash with social welfare issues:
"There is currently little incentive for Caltrans to enhance lines of communication with local governments or social service providers, let alone conduct cleanups of active homeless encampments — and local communities refuse to patrol or enforce illegal camping on Caltrans ROWs due to real or perceived lack of jurisdiction. In cities with the most acute homeless crises, Caltrans ROWs and urban creeks have become de-facto homeless shelters," the letter states.
"Unfortunately, homelessness lies at the heart of some of the most serious water quality issues in our region. If the Water Board is serious about trash management, and restoring or reducing harm to urban creeks, permits must require greater action to compel enforcement of existing laws related to illegal camping and dumping, while increasing the availability of social services and coordination with providers."
Keith Lichten, division chief for the Regional Water Quality Control Board's watershed management division, said the agency issues water-discharge permits that require trash control. The permits allow municipalities, industries and agencies to drain water through storm drains and pumping during rains or the course of their operations. The permits give the control board leverage for the permitees to manage their trash and hazardous waste.
When it comes to addressing homeless populations, the water board is looking to collaborate with agencies and city staff. Lichten said his agency is working collaboratively with Menlo Park to address the issue. The problem is not isolated to Menlo Park but stretches throughout the Bay Area, he said. Some cities are taking creative approaches.
"The city of Oakland looked at a combination of leased land, Caltrans property and the Kaiser Convention Center to create community cabins," he said. The city offers limited services such as portable toilets and washing stations and works with nonprofit organizations to provide services.
East Palo Alto has addressed one aspect of homelessness by using a municipal location for a "safe parking" program where people in recreational vehicles receive vouchers to discharge their waste tanks at a legitimate station, and have access to portable toilets, showers and social service programs to find housing and address other needs. The program helped reduce thousands of gallons of waste and trash from the street and storm drain.
In Menlo Park, Coffman said a coordinated homeless outreach has been ongoing by multiple agencies and is conducted several times each week with the goal of connecting them to support services and resources to get them into stable housing.
Taylor, Menlo Park's mayor, said the new subcommittee on the Triangle includes herself, Councilman Ray Mueller, city staff, Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and nonprofit service providers, including the county Health Department, Ravenswood Family Clinic, Project WeHope, LifeMoves and pastors from local churches.
On Monday, the subcommittee met to discuss ways to protect the environment and the health and safety of the encampment dwellers. Members hope to streamline communication regarding dangerous situations so that first responders and firefighters can gain easy access. Potentially, they might add amenities such as wash stations and portable toilets as short-term solutions, she said.
"My goal is to have no one living there at the end of the year. Where they would live is a big question," Taylor said in a phone interview on Tuesday.
Schapelhouman, who said he is always concerned about the safety of the encampment dwellers and surrounding community, said on Tuesday that he is pleased with the direction the new subcommittee is taking.
"There are more resources dedicated to this than anything I've ever seen. But what does that translate to? At some point talk needs to stop and action needs to take over," he said. "At the end of the day, it's a fire risk; it's a life-safety risk."