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Curbing the Trash Problem at the East Fork of the San Gabriel River

As the summer heat soars, so do visitor counts at San Gabriel River's East Fork.

"We have this huge metropolitan area, there are no closer places that you can truly go to the river and sit by a creek and splash around in it," said Rob Romanek of the Watershed Conservation Authority (WCA). "People go, barbecue, camp. It gets so busy that Caltrans has to close the road."

A part of the neighboring San Gabriel River watershed, the area is a popular recreational spot, which bears the brunt of many human abuses, so much so that about ten years ago the East Fork was listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) (http://www.swrcb.ca.gov/) as an impaired waterway because of so much trash that ended up in it.

A SWRCB report in 2000 estimated that during the summer about 8,000 people make their way to four informal picnic areas at the Fork. Their picnics and barbecues result in over 400 32-gallon bags worth of trash each day, half of which end up in the streams and in the rivers. It is an astounding amount of neglect that takes on a sinister mien.

Sadly, more than a decade has passed, but the problem remains. "It's a national forest, not a national park," explains Romanek, "The U.S. Forest Service is set up to manage public land, but not to handle such a staggering amount of recreational activity. It has no resources to handle it."

This summer the U.S. Forest Service and the WCA are trying something new. By enlisting the help of youth, the pair is embarking on an educational program they hope will produce more conscientious visitors and foster future river stewards. It is a two-year program funded by a grant from the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy.

Over the summer weekends until Labor day, visitors will be greeted by "conservation leaders" from the Urban Conservation Corps of the Inland Empire, a program that fosters employable skills in young men and women through environmental conservation.

Visitors will find these youth manning booths at the informal picnic areas and walking through the grounds, talking about the impact of trash on the river and handing out trash bags.

These young leaders will also touch base with visitors about the surprising effects of building rock dams on the Santa Ana sucker, a native California fish that's slowly losing its numbers in part due to these man-made obstacles.

"The Santa Ana sucker does best in the East Fork," said Romanek, "but one of the reasons it's not doing so well now is because of the rock dams people build along the river." These dams left by unwary visitors inhibit river flows and fish movement.

"We want people to still recreate and have a good time," said Romanek, "but we're simply asking people to take down any rock dams they build and pick litter up."

Young visitors to East Fork will be treated to storytelling time and activities with an environmental bent including appearances by the Forest Service's conservation icon, Woodsy the Owl. While parents will no doubt be thankful for youth activities, organizers hope the children's fun will be the seeds to future river awareness.

To track the program's success, the Forest Service and WCA have asked college students to conduct a visitor survey. The questionnaire will also cover any recreational uses visitors hope to see at the East Fork. Aside from their educational duties, the conservation leaders will check trash levels to see whether more visitors heeded their message.

In the end, they hope that data gives them enough ammunition to expand the deceptively simple program to make big changes. "If we can prove that it benefits the situation, we want to replicate in other places in canyon." Perhaps by then, the area, which is being considered for a National Wild and Scenic River System designation, will also make its way out of the list of impaired waterways.

Photos courtesy of U.S. Forest Service and Water Conservation Authority.

About the Author

Carren is an art, architecture and design writer and an avid explorer of Los Angeles. Her work has been spotted on Core77, Dwell, Surface Asia, and Fast Co.Design. You can find her online and on Twitter. 
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