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[whitespace] Guadalupe River Park Weeping Willows: Trash chokes riparian vegetation along the length of Guadalupe River Park, but no local agency is too worked up over it.

Christopher Gardner

While three public agencies argue about whose job it is to take out the trash at Guadalupe River Park, some say that what is really needed is "interpretive signage"

By Michael Learmonth

CARLOS DUEÑO is an earnest city employee with a neatly cropped mustache and a badge. His beat: the Guadalupe River. As a San Jose Park Ranger, Dueño's responsibilities include giving interpretive tours, evicting homeless campers and fielding tons of questions from park visitors.

After nine years on the job, he knows the Chinook salmon's favorite spawning spots and the various species of fish and birds in the park. But, increasingly, there is one question that has no easy answer.

"Why is there so much garbage?"

Despite reports to the contrary, the emerging jewel of San Jose's park system is trashed. Human waste of every imaginable variety can be found on its banks. There are the usual accouterments of homeless campsites: enough shopping carts to stock a Super K, plastic tarpaulins, Styrofoam food trays and tattered sleeping bags.

But the homeless campsites don't begin to account for the sheer volume of trash.

"It comes from as far away as the Almaden Valley, especially with the winter rains," says Joe Cardinelli, city parks manager.

When walking north from Coleman, along the reedy Guadalupe flood plain, the dominating features of the vista are little white shards of plastic waving like a thousand jaunty flags from the tops of reeds, bushes and trees. The winter's floodwaters have left large objects, such as a stroller and a plastic crate, a hundred yards from the river's channel. Mounds of flotsam are piled up against the fragile riparian vegetation.

Responsible for cleaning up the mess are three bureaucracies: the city of San Jose, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the Army Corps of Engineers.

And nobody wants to take out the trash.

Trash Talkin' Bureaucrats

'WE HAVE BEEN negotiating with the [water] district on a maintenance contract that is not completed," says parks spokesman Cardinelli, underscoring the fact that the city doesn't want to do it.

According to the parties involved, the city is responsible for cleaning only the park area--the grassy mounds, paths and benches. The water district is responsible for the river channel and some of the flood plain, an area that's covered with water in winter and exposed in the spring. The Army Corps is supposed to maintain some areas of the flood plain--called "mitigation areas"--where riparian vegetation has been planted to replace what was removed during construction of the project.

But that is where the simplicity ends, diverging into a web of bureaucratic rationalizations about efficiency, financial accountability and standards of cleanliness.

Traditionally, for example, the water district has only been responsible for cleaning up trash that actually obstructs water flow. But in a rainy El Niño year, the water district would prefer to wait until the very end of the season to start picking up the debris, regardless of the aesthetic impact of the trash piling up on the exposed banks.

"We don't tend to spend flood-control money for the way things look, only for the way they function," says Jim Ferguson, the water district's project manager for the Guadalupe. "In the future, I do think there will be a higher level of expenditure on appearances. But that will be something that our board decides."

One appearance-related expense that the water district has traditionally undertaken is graffiti cleanup. (Note to the district: A new tag, 14 empty Krylon cans and fresh footprints are under the Coleman Street bridge.)

Cardinelli, meanwhile, says the city has been "down there on a daily basis" removing silt from the pathways and picking up trash in its designated area. And this, he maintains, is where the city's responsibility ends.

Ferguson, on the other hand, says that while the folks at the district have hatched plans for a cleanup down in the riverbed, it may not come until mid-May. And the district will set its own standard for cleanliness.

"There will be an ongoing discussion of how clean that [area] needs to be kept," Ferguson says.

The Army Corps, meanwhile, relies on the water district for feedback about the condition of the flood-mitigation area located near Hedding Street. "We keep them advised on our opinion of how it looks," Ferguson says of the area currently strewn with plastic, soggy couch cushions and shopping carts.

To visitors, Dueño explains that the park is unique in that it is actually designed to flood every year. And while allowing flooding north of Coleman keeps downtown dry, it also brings a seasonal deposit of trash.

"To the average park-user, it looks like a park," Dueño laments. "But each agency has their own timelines and resources, so the questions about trash are hard to answer."

Gloria Duffy, former president of the Guadalupe River Park and Gardens Corporation, says the "mud on the paths and the trash are the price we pay to have a more natural riverscape than a concrete box."

While a natural river that provides habitat for native species is desirable, the garbage that collects in the riparian areas is not. Duffy thinks a system should be devised to cope quickly with the floodwaters' annual deposit of trash.

"We do need a mechanism, whether it is the city or volunteers," Duffy says. "Perhaps the city needs to issue a contract."

Native Dumping Grounds

CARDINELLI SAYS the city is looking to National River Cleanup Day on May 16 to get volunteers into the park to help clean up.

Kathy Muller, executive director of the Guadalupe River Park and Gardens Corporation, suggests the city could do a better job explaining to park-users why the park remains garbage-strewn until mid-May.

"This [type of park] is all very new," she explains. "They could develop some good interpretive signage that really explains to people what a mitigation-planning area is and the sensitivity of it, as well as the relationship between the flood project and the park. It's pretty hard to go out there between the raindrops and do that level of cleanup."

Should the trash be left to accumulate--in this case for months--until the rains subside? Dueño doesn't thinks so.

"Sure, we would like to have it cleaned up sooner," Dueño says, "but that is something that is being discussed way above me."

Guadalupe River Park begins at Highway 280, where its fast-moving waters thread the needle between the Children's Discovery Museum, the Heritage Building and the Arena. The riverbanks north to W. Santa Clara Street--an orderly rock levee held together by steel gabions--are relatively litter-free.

Soon after the Guadalupe is met by Los Gatos Creek at Confluence Point, the river becomes a refuge for dumping, urban campsites and cruising.

The River Street neighborhood, San Jose's turn-of-the-century ghost town, is slated to be quaintly restored as soon as the water district wins the environmental approvals to build the rest of the park.

But now, garbage seems to flow unchecked into this area of the river. By the time the river goes under the Coleman Street bridge and hits the flood plain, it is carrying plenty of trash.

As bad as it looks, Dueño says it's hard to tell if the garbage is actually harming the animals.

"In some instances a tin can be home to a crawdad," he says. "I've seen robin's nests made out of plastic string--and that's not the best thing."

Not all of the garbage was carried into the river by the rains. For example, three very neatly tied bags full of garbage were placed by human hands in a patch of riparian wildflowers just north of Coleman.

When Dueño finds an intentional dump, he investigates it. If he can discern the origin of the garbage, he can fine the culprit the cost of cleanup. If there are hazardous materials present, the cost can soar into the thousands.

Many times, when the owner of the garbage is contacted, Dueño discovers a hired hauler is to blame. Why pay a tipping fee when you can dump in the river for free?

And as sure as dumping accelerates in springtime, trash begets trash. The more trash is visible in the park, Dueño explains, the more appealing it becomes to dumpers.

On the flood plain above Hedding, trash and debris pile up as signs caution park users that the land is "fragile and easily damaged." A snowy egret picks through the mess but seems not be concerned until I approach on the path. Accustomed to human rubbish but still afraid of humans, it flaps its graceful wings and flies away.

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From the April 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro.

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