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Saturday, September 18th, was Russian River Cleanup day organized by the Mendocino County Resource Conservation District. I was part of the Rotary Club of South Ukiah team that joined John McCowen’s crusade to clean up trash left at abandoned homeless encampments on the Russian River. This was our third river cleanup event with John, we also sponsored events on August 14th and 28th.
We focused on sections of the Russian River from the water treatment plant at the Ukiah Valley Sanitation District on south State Street to Perkins Bridge. In total, we have probably removed at least 4 to 5 tons of trash from the riparian zones in that short section of the Russian River. John has also removed an additional 2 to 4 tons of trash from this area on his own. Even more daunting is the fact that we aren’t done; there are other locations with similar trash problems. We realize that community stewardship practices for the Russian River need to change.
While removing trash is definitely nasty and unpleasant physical labor, it is only part of the picture. We give John kudos for watching over the Russian River. We were in awe of his work with the homeless and his skill at persuading them to vacate their camps on these sites. If the homeless had still been occupying these locations, we would not have been able to remove so much trash.
John has been tirelessly working for years to contact the homeless in these encampments. Think about it, maybe up to 100 homeless peacefully left their camps over the past few months and there were no major news articles on cruel forced evictions. Some cases took quiet visits from sheriff’s deputies, but there were no ugly scenes. Hopefully, we can continue to work with the homeless in this peaceful manner.
We are continually impressed with John’s knowledge of the homeless encampments on the river. He knows most of the homeless by name and possesses a detailed knowledge of their personal history. He explains that every homeless person has their own story. There are those who are temporarily out of a home and then there are those who are long-term permanently homeless who do not seem to fit in any program.
Everyone involved with the Russian River Cleanups, including John, agrees that the homeless deserve a place to live with dignity. However, that place cannot be in the riparian zones of the Russian River.
First, there is the problem with untreated human feces and dangerous chemicals – such as Clorox – that are being released into the river from the homeless encampments. Then we are also finding enormous amounts of plastics in the encampments and many scientific studies have been released recently regarding the dangers of micro plastics in our food supply and our environment. The homeless also tend to destroy vegetation to excavate living platforms in the river banks and in the process leave the banks exposed to erosion once the regular water flows resume.
Fire is another problem with the encampments as they tend to cook on open fires and don’t show good stewardship in managing their fires. We found several sites with charcoal spread on the ground and some left their grills.
Finally, there are the problems with drug use and used needles on the banks of the river. In our recent outing, we actually found “loaded” needles, needles with a liquid substance in the barrels of the needle, ready for injection. In addition, we found about 10 needles in a container ready from some sort of needle exchange.
I moved to the Ukiah area two years ago and we seemed to be making progress in reducing trash and pollution in the Russian River at that time. However, based on the last year of work with John and various river organizations, such as the South Ukiah Rotary Club and the Russian Riverkeeper Clean Team, I can definitely say that we, as a community, are losing the battle to keep the Russian River clean and healthy. In the last 8 months, I have been involved in around 10 clean-up events. The trash situation is very bad on the upper Russian River.
Illegal dumping into the Russian River and streams in the Russian River Watershed is compounding the problem. In February of 2021, members of the South Ukiah Rotary joined with the Russian Riverkeeper Clean Team to clear 2 tons of trash from Mill Creek. This dump included more than 5 gallons of paint, battery acid and other dangerous chemicals. What is worse, it was clear from some of the debris that people had been dumping at this location for about 45 years or more. Mill Creek is critical for providing spawning habitat to steelhead.
Reports from the Russian Riverkeeper clean team indicate that the section of the river from Hopland to Cloverdale is even more littered and polluted. I worked on a river beach cleanup at the Geysers exist under the Stanton Bridge and it was disgusting.
I have fished on many rivers across the United States, including many polluted rivers in Appalachia. It is my observation that the upper Russian River is the most trashed waterway that I have seen anywhere in the U.S., and that includes some grim scenes near coal mines in Kentucky.
There is plenty of blame to go around, but at the core lies a simple fact – we are facing a massive community failure to care for a resource that is critically important to our local environment. We need to praise community activists, such as John McCowen, who work quietly and tirelessly to combat this issue. However, when the same scene pops up over and over in different places, like the movie “Ground Hog Day,” then we need to discuss alternative solutions to this problem. Regular cleanups just are not going to keep the Russian River clean. It is time to build on the knowledge of activist citizens like John and scientists to find better solutions.
One solution is educating the youth of Mendocino County about the dangers of dumping trash illegally and allowing homeless encampments on the banks of the Russian River. Another solution is working with the homeless to clean their encampments. While this idea was rejected a couple of years ago, new evidence suggests that it can work. Mendocino County and local governments can help by building more sanitation infrastructure, such as bigger stronger trash cans at hot spots such as Comiskey Station. Finally, there has to be a community solution to finding a place for the homeless to stay. We can all pitch in by improving our environmental stewardship of the land.