This is the weird stuff being found in Lake Merritt. And this is the group that has to deal with it.

If you ask volunteers of the Lake Merritt Institute what the largest, or more unusual, items they’ve come across cleaning up Lake Merritt, it’s likely they’ll rattle off a long list of unexpected items — all made up of things that obviously do not belong in a huge body of water.

There are the “usual” expected items: cigarette butts and litter that gets blown into the water. But then there’s the not-so-obvious trash that gets dumped in the lake.

“If you just look at [trash figures] from year to year, or month to month, sometimes you can get discouraged,” said James Robinson, executive director of the Lake Merritt Institute. “But as you look at it over the years, you can see it’s on a downward slope — but we do have exceptions like this year and last year.

“Mainly this year, we’ve been having a lot of illegal dumping,” he added. “Some of those totals will include mattresses, clothing, chairs and things of that nature, that don’t come in through the storm drains.”

There was the time a dumpster was found partially submerged in the lake, various pieces of furniture, mannequin heads, and then, yes, once there was a piano.

The piano was a result of some folks who broke into the Lake Merritt Boating Center in October 2018 and stole the boats to transport an estimated 100 people to the bird islands for an unsanctioned party, the Tidings (Lake Merritt Institute’s newsletter) reported in November 2018. A full, upright piano was famously tossed — err, most likely pushed — into the lake during the illegal gathering. It took Lake Merritt Institute staff half a day to pull the piano out.

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In the midst of listing a number of other illegally dumped items found in the lake, one of the standout items Robinson mentioned was (alarmingly, to this reporter) “a dead cat in a box.”

“[There was] a dead cat in a box, like some kind of shrine to a cat,” Robinson recalled.

“It had [the cat’s] pictures and stuff on the lid of the box, and roses, but it’s just like, OK, I don’t know if the cat liked the lake, or something like that, but … ,” Robinson trailed off.

Which is a long way to say that the lake has seen its fair share of trash. Dead cat and all.

And so it’s on a gray August morning at Lake Merritt, that a small, intrepid group of volunteers have gathered at 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday at the Sailboat Clubhouse on Bellevue Avenue — all in the name of picking up trash in the lake.

These are just a handful of volunteers who work with the Lake Merritt Institute and who have helped collect 15,100 pounds of trash this year, as of July. The institute has been cleaning the waters of the lagoon since 1996, led by Robinson in more recent years, working with a steady group of volunteers, schools and workplace organizations.

Beyond the large items that get thrown or dumped into the lake, there’s also the trash that comes in through storm drains each winter; by Robinson’s count, there are more than 63 drains that empty into the lake. Most of the trash in the drains goes in unfiltered except for a couple of filters around the lake that keep some of that trash from dumping directly into the waters of Lake Merritt, Robinson said.

When asked what the busiest time of year is, Robinson and Paris Organist, a lake supervisor with the institute, agreed: the first rain is usually the worst time at the lake for dealing with trash.

“We get [about] 5,000 acres of drainage coming right in, bringing all the trash,” said Organist as we stood by the lake. “All those storm drains are filled with trash right now, after all of summer. Those little bits falling in, and so it washes all in. … We won’t be doing this [trash gathering on the shore] in the winter quite as much, because then you’re using the nets, because the trash is floating around and we want to get that stuff that’s going to be flooding to the ocean.”

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As Robinson mentioned, the large trash figure has gone way down since a landmark year of garbage in 2005. That year, the institute collected 59,100 pounds of trash, but a number of actions have since been implemented to lower that level of trash, according to Robinson: filters were added to storm drains, trash booms were placed near problematic drains and the public was educated on where the trash was coming from and how to prevent it.

By comparison, in 2018, the institute collected 24,480 pounds of trash, Robinson said. Although that number still seems high — “any amount of trash is too much trash,” Robinson added — the number is still encouraging.

“In 2005, there was almost 60,000 pounds of trash and that’s a very disheartening figure,” Robinson said. “But just to see it reduced down to 24,000 pounds in 2018, that’s super refreshing and it helps me; it keeps me going to just see that. We are making a dent in this and we are making a change.”

Guy Struve of Albany clears the shoreline of trash on Lake Merritt close to 18th Street in Oakland, Calif. on August 20, 2019. Twice a week volunteers with the Lake Merritt Institute clean the shoreline of the lake. Photo: Douglas Zimmerman/SFGate.com

Photo: Douglas Zimmerman/SFGate.com

Guy Struve of Albany clears the shoreline of trash on Lake Merritt close to 18th Street in Oakland, Calif. on August 20, 2019. Twice a week volunteers with the Lake Merritt Institute clean the shoreline of the lake.

Some of that change the institute has implemented include the strides made with keeping e-scooters and e-bikes from being dumped into the lake. Volunteers found a number of scooters and bikes in the lake over the past few years, which can cause issues with the ecosystem due to the lithium-ion batteries. After a sharing photo in which the institute showcased over 60 scooters it had hauled up, scooter companies Bird and Lime began working with the institute, Robinson said, instituting a no-parking zone around the water and sending workers to the lake to retrieve any scooters the group reports to them each week.

“My biggest fear is that if a scooter is still in there, and we haven’t retrieved yet, the longer it stays in the lake, the more the battery casing can be compromised and potentially harm the lake,” Robinson confessed. In just a week, a scooter can easily become covered with barnacles and algae and won’t be as easily seen by volunteers to be hauled out, he explained.

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Still, despite the signs of progress, there’s still a strong need for cleanup groups. The institute has added a number of “U-Clean-It” stations filled with nets and trash gathering supplies that can be unlocked by anyone who has attended a cleanup or has looked at the institute’s website for a combination code. These boxes have helped those who want to help cleanup between the institute’s known Tuesday and Saturday group cleanups, but as Organist stressed, there’s always a need for more volunteers.

“There’s trash every week and it keeps coming — we always need more help,” Organist said. “There’s never a time when we say, ‘Oh, we don’t really need help.’ Even when it’s slow right now and the lake’s pretty clean, there’s still tons more trash right here we didn’t get to today. So every week there’s always stuff to do.”

“We love our lake, so we come out and try to keep it clean,” volunteer Laura Goderez said. “There are lots of people who love the lake and are trying to keep it beautiful because it’s one of our treasures, it’s one of our jewels here in Oakland. So, people, put the trash in the trash cans, not in the lake.”

To learn more about the Lake Merritt Institute and its efforts to clean up the lake, head to the group’s website at www.lakemerrittinstitute.org.

Dianne de Guzman is a Digital Senior Editor at SFGATE. Email: dianne.deguzman@sfgate.com | Twitter: @diannedeguzman

This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Oakland-Lake-Merritt-Institute-trash-dumping-14291192.php.

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