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Chang, D.; Richardot, W.; Miller, E.; Dodder, N.; Sedlak, M.; Hoh, E.; Sutton, R. 2021. Framework for nontargeted investigation of contaminants released by wildfires into stormwater runoff: Case study in the northern San Francisco Bay area. Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management . SFEI Contribution No. 1044.

Wildfires can be extremely destructive to communities and ecosystems. However, the full scope of the ecological damage is often hard to assess, in part due to limited information on the types of chemicals introduced to affected landscapes and waterways. The objective of this study was to establish a sampling, analytical, and interpretive framework to effectively identify and monitor contaminants of emerging concern in environmental water samples impacted by wildfire runoff. A nontargeted analysis consisting of comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography coupled to time-of-flight mass spectrometry (GC × GC/TOF-MS) was conducted on stormwater samples from watersheds in the City of Santa Rosa and Sonoma and Napa Counties, USA, after the three most destructive fires during the October 2017 Northern California firestorm. Chemicals potentially related to wildfires were selected from the thousands of chromatographic features detected through a screening method that compared samples from fire-impacted sites versus unburned reference sites. This screening led to high confidence identifications of 76 potentially fire-related compounds. Authentic standards were available for 48 of these analytes, and 46 were confirmed by matching mass spectra and GC × GC retention times. Of these 46 compounds, 37 had known commercial and industrial uses as intermediates or ingredients in plastics, personal care products, pesticides, and as food additives. Nine compounds had no known uses or sources and may be oxidation products resulting from burning of natural or anthropogenic materials. Preliminary examination of potential toxicity associated with the 46 compounds, conducted via online databases and literature review, indicated limited data availability. Regional comparison suggested that more structural damage may yield a greater number of unique, potentially wildfire-related compounds. We recommend further study of post-wildfire runoff using the framework described here, which includes hypothesis-driven site selection and nontargeted analysis, to uncover potentially significant stormwater contaminants not routinely monitored after wildfires and inform risk assessment. 

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Miller, E.; Sedlak, M.; Sutton, R.; Chang, D.; Dodder, N.; Hoh, E. 2021. Summary for Managers: Non-targeted Analysis of Stormwater Runoff following the 2017 Northern San Francisco Bay Area Wildfires. SFEI Contribution No. 1045. San Francisco Estuary Institute: Richmond, CA.

Urban-wildland interfaces in the western US are increasingly threatened by the growing number and intensity of wildfires, potentially changing the type of contaminants released into the landscape as more urban structures are burned. In October 2017, the Tubbs, Nuns, and Atlas wildfires devastated communities in Northern California (Figure 1), burning over 8,500 buildings and 210,000 acres of land in the span of 24 days (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection 2017). Together, these wildfires were the most destructive and costliest fires in the history of California at that time (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection 2019). 

Post-wildfire monitoring efforts in impacted watersheds typically focus on a few well-established water quality and chemistry concerns (McKee et al. 2018). Few studies go beyond these limited targeted analyses and attempt to identify the multitude of other fire-related compounds that are released from or form as the result of combustion of residential, commercial, and industrial structures in urban-wildland interfaces. Some of these unidentified compounds may be toxic to aquatic ecosystems or human health, and may pose risks to wildlife or in water bodies that act as drinking water supplies to nearby communities.  

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Moran, K.; Miller, E.; Mendez, M.; Moore, S.; Gilbreath, A.; Sutton, R.; Lin, D. 2021. A Synthesis of Microplastic Sources and Pathways to Urban Runoff. SFEI Contribution No. 1049. San Francisco Estuary Institute: Richmond, CA.

California Senate Bill 1263 (2018) tasks the Ocean Protection Council (OPC) with leading statewide efforts to address microplastic pollution, and requires the OPC to adopt and implement a Statewide Microplastics Strategy related to microplastic materials that pose an emerging concern for ocean health. Key questions remain about the sources and pathways of microplastics, particularly to urban runoff, to inform an effective statewide microplastics management strategy. The OPC funded this work to inform these microplastics efforts. The purpose of this project was to build conceptual models that synthesize and integrate our current understanding of microplastic sources and pathways to urban runoff in order to provide future research priorities that will inform how best to mitigate microplastic pollution. Specifically, we developed conceptual models for cigarette butts and associated cellulose acetate fibers (Section 2), fibers other than cellulose acetate (Section 3), single-use plastic foodware and related microplastics (Section 4), and tire particles (Section 5), which were prioritized based on findings from the recent urban stormwater monitoring of microplastics in the San Francisco Bay region. Conceptual models specific to each of these particle types are valuable tools to refine source identification and elucidate potential source-specific data gaps and management options.

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Miller, E.; Mendez, M.; Shimabuku, I.; Buzby, N.; Sutton, R. 2020. Contaminants of Emerging Concern in San Francisco Bay: A Strategy for Future Investigations 2020 Update. SFEI Contribution No. 1007. San Francisco Estuary Institute: Richmond, CA.

This 2020 CEC Strategy Update is a brief summary document that describes the addition of recently monitored CECs to the tiered risk-based framework. Reviews of findings relevant to San Francisco Bay are provided, as is a discussion of the role of environmental persistence in classifying CECs within the framework. The Strategy is a living document that guides RMP special studies on CECs, assuring continued focus on the issues of highest priority to protecting the health of the Bay. A key focus of the Strategy is a tiered risk-based framework that guides future monitoring proposals. The Strategy also features a multi-year plan indicating potential future research priorities.

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Miller, E.; Klasios, N.; Lin, D.; Sedlak, M.; Sutton, R.; Rochman, C. 2020. Microparticles, Microplastics, and PAHs in Bivalves in San Francisco Bay. SFEI Contribution No. 976. San Francisco Estuary Institute: Richmond, CA.

California mussels (Mytilus californianus and hybrid Mytilus galloprovincialis / Mytilus trossulus) and Asian clams (Corbicula fluminea) were collected at multiple sites in San Francisco Bay. Mussels from a reference area with minimal urban influence were also deployed in cages for 90 days at multiple sites within the Bay prior to collection.Mussels from the reference time zero site, Bodega Head, had some of the lowest microparticle levels found in this study, along with resident clams from the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers and mussels transplanted to Pinole Point. The highest concentrations of microparticles were in mussels transplanted to Redwood Creek and Coyote Creek. The results of this study and current literature indicate that bivalves may not be good status and trends indicators of microplastic concentrations in the Bay unless the interest is in human health exposure via contaminated bivalve consumption.

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Miller, E.; Sedlak, M.; Lin, D.; Box, C.; Holleman, C.; Rochman, C. M.; Sutton, R. 2020. Recommended Best Practices for Collecting, Analyzing, and Reporting Microplastics in Environmental Media: Lessons Learned from Comprehensive Monitoring of San Francisco Bay. Journal of Hazardous Materials . SFEI Contribution No. 1023.

Microplastics are ubiquitous and persistent contaminants in the ocean and a pervasive and preventable threat to the health of marine ecosystems. Microplastics come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and plastic types, each with unique physical and chemical properties and toxicological impacts. Understanding the magnitude of the microplastic problem and determining the highest priorities for mitigation require accurate measures of microplastic occurrence in the environment and identification of likely sources. The field of microplastic pollution is in its infancy, and there are not yet widely accepted standards for sample collection, laboratory analyses, quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC), or reporting of microplastics in environmental samples. Based on a comprehensive assessment of microplastics in San Francisco Bay water, sediment, fish, bivalves, stormwater, and wastewater effluent, we developed recommended best practices for collecting, analyzing, and reporting microplastics in environmental media. We recommend factors to consider in microplastic study design, particularly in regard to site selection and sampling methods. We also highlight the need for standard QA/QC practices such as collection of field and laboratory blanks, use of methods beyond microscopy to identify particle composition, and standardized reporting practices, including suggested vocabulary for particle classification.

Davis, J.; Foley, M.; Askevold, R.; Buzby, N.; Chelsky, A.; Dusterhoff, S.; Gilbreath, A.; Lin, D.; Miller, E.; Senn, D.; et al. 2020. RMP Update 2020. SFEI Contribution No. 1008.

The overarching goal of the Regional Monitoring Program for Water Quality in San Francisco Bay (RMP) is to answer the highest priority scientific questions faced by managers of Bay water quality. The RMP is an innovative collaboration between the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, the regulated discharger community, the San Francisco Estuary Institute, and many other scientists and interested parties. The purpose of this document is to provide a concise overview of recent RMP activities and findings, and a look ahead to significant products anticipated in the next two years. The report includes a description of the management context that guides the Program; a brief summary of some of the most noteworthy findings of this multifaceted Program; and a summary of progress to date and future plans for addressing priority water quality topics.

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Sedlak, M.; Sutton, R.; Miller, L.; Lin, D. 2019. Microplastic Strategy Update. SFEI Contribution No. 951. San Francisco Estuary Institute: Richmond, CA.

Based on the detection of microplastics in San Francisco Bay surface water and Bay Area wastewater effluent in 2015, the Regional Monitoring Program for Water Quality in San Francisco Bay (RMP) convened a Microplastic Workgroup (MPWG) in 2016 to discuss the issue, identify management information needs and management questions (MQs), and prioritize studies to provide information to answer these management questions. The MPWG meets annually to review on-going microplastic projects and to conduct strategic long-term planning in response to new information in this rapidly evolving field.


In this nascent field with new findings published almost daily, the Strategy is designed to be a living document that is updated periodically. This Strategy Update includes a short summary of recent findings from the San Francisco Bay Microplastics Project - a major monitoring effort in the Bay - and an updated multi-year plan based on the newly acquired knowledge and current management needs.

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Sutton, R.; Lin, D.; Sedlak, M.; Box, C.; Gilbreath, A.; Holleman, R.; Miller, L.; Wong, A.; Munno, K.; Zhu, X.; et al. 2019. Understanding Microplastic Levels, Pathways, and Transport in the San Francisco Bay Region. SFEI Contribution No. 950. San Francisco Estuary Institute: Richmond, CA.

Microplastics (particles less than 5 mm) are ubiquitous and persistent pollutants in the ocean and a pervasive and preventable threat to the health of marine ecosystems. Microplastics come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and plastic types, each with unique physical and chemical properties and toxicological impacts. Understanding the magnitude of the microplastics problem and determining the highest priorities for mitigation require accurate measures of microplastic occurrence in the environment and identification of likely sources.

To develop critical baseline data and inform solutions, the San Francisco Estuary Institute and the 5 Gyres Institute have completed the first comprehensive regional study of microplastic pollution in a major estuary. This project supported multiple scientific components to develop improved knowledge about and characterization of microparticles and microplastics in San Francisco Bay and adjacent National Marine Sanctuaries, with the following objectives:

  1. Contribute to the development and standardization of sample collection and analysis methodology for microplastic transportation research.
  2. Determine a baseline for future monitoring of microplastics in San Francisco Bay surface water, sediment, and fish, and in ocean waters outside the Golden Gate.
  3. Characterize pathways by which microplastics enter the Bay, including urban stormwater and treated wastewater effluent.
  4. Investigate the contribution of Bay microplastics to the adjacent National Marine Sanctuaries through computer simulations.
  5. Communicate findings to regional stakeholders and the general public through meetings and educational materials.
  6. Facilitate evaluation of policy options for San Francisco Bay, with recommendations on source reduction.

This document presents the findings of this three-year project. A companion document, “San Francisco Bay Microplastics Project: Science-Supported Solutions and Policy Recommendations,” has been developed by 5 Gyres using the findings of this study (Box and Cummins, 2019).

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