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Leave No Trace

Mar 04, 2024 12:19PM ● By Kristina Rogers, photos by Kristina Rogers
Left to right, founders David Ingram, Lisa Sanchez, Mark Baker and Kathleen Ford.

SACRAMENTO, CA (MPG) - On a chilly winter morning, I joined a crew of grassroots eco-activists from the River City Waterway Alliance (a.k.a. RCWA) at Cal Expo entrance 12. Dressed in sturdy gear, friends chatted over coffee and donuts. We gathered to hear team lead David Ingram give an overview of the day’s work and then trekked the pathway to the riverbank with carts of buckets, grabbers, and trash bags.

Wayne Watts, a longtime Sacramento resident, told me he’s been cleaning up this part of the American River Parkway since 1985. “I’ve got grandkids and great-grandkids and want them to have a place to go.” Watts explained, "We’ve had these camps for generations, but COVID made it worse. Pandemic health restrictions allowed illegal campers to be left alone, and camps grew. We are working to get where Mother Nature can heal itself again.”

Wayne Watts propane tank

Wayne Watts holds a discarded propane tank.

Off the path, we were greeted with muddy rubbish hanging from brush due to seasonal rains and flooding. Margarita Chavez stepped into a thorny bush to pull out discarded blankets and clothing. Chavez is a well-known trash dash warrior. Her twin sister Myrna Gonzales was there to help, too. The twins proudly shared they’ll celebrate a 70th birthday soon, yet you’d never know from their energy level. The sisters say this volunteer work keeps them young. 

Myrna Gonzales Margarita Chavez

Sisters Myrna Gonzales and Margarita Chavez stand ready to work.

Myrna Gonzales

Myrna Gonzales shows off the day’s work.

Meanwhile, Watts found a small propane canister: “These are used to cook and other things. People toss ‘em when empty. If there’s a fire, they burn hot and explode like shrapnel. They are dangerous to firefighters, so we try to pull them out as fast as possible.”

Discarded illegal camping items harm the environment and animals. Heavy layers of tarps, tents, and blankets choke streams. Plastic containers, bike parts, and broken glass disrupt wildlife’s nesting spots. Needles, batteries, abandoned prescription drugs, and used wipes taint the soil. It should concern every Sierra Club member and climate change activist who understand when exiting a natural space, you are to leave no trace.

To naysayers who ask why clean up when it will get trashed again, Ingram and his friends have an answer. “Why brush your teeth or take a shower when you will just get dirty again? Every piece of trash removed will never return to that waterway. If we do nothing, it will get worse.”

In 2023, the River City Waterway Alliance removed 1,134,313 pounds of trash from our natural spaces. This includes 441 shopping carts, 23,819 batteries, and 9,485 needles. In addition, when they deep clean an area, it becomes “RCWA Clean” and is maintained by volunteers and parks. Now, that’s sustainability.

Clean up events are frequent at Arcade Creek, American River, Steelhead Creek, Bannon Island, and the Sacramento River. The group has over 223 videos on their YouTube channel. It’s fascinating to see the creativity they use to get to the garbage along difficult riverbanks.

David Ingram, along with RCWA co-founders, Kathleen Ford, Lisa Sanchez, and Mark Baker, are active leaders collaborating with the county. Sacramento County Parks Department helps haul the garbage out once it’s in a pile. They’ve also advocated for more funding. Sanchez assisted in getting county parks a budget increase, paying for new equipment and a few new maintenance workers. City council members are starting to step up too. Lisa Kaplan (District 1) and Karina Talamantes (District 2) have been hosting RCWA events in their areas.

Back at the clean-up site, my arms were tiring, and the “almost 70” twins were running circles around me. I’m thinking about attending more RCWA events and giving up my gym pass! Meanwhile, a volunteer hit the jackpot and found a “landfill” left by campers. It’s a deep garbage hole hidden under the dirt and contains years of garbage. Another volunteer is putting discarded needles and batteries in a special bucket. I asked Kathleen Ford about the more unusual items they stumbled upon. “We find all manner of things. Old vintage Coke bottles, beer cans with pull tabs, and blow-up dolls. We see a surprising amount of fake money, like movie prop money. And believe it or not, lots of vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers." Once, they even found a 1960s salon-style hair dryer.

Incredibly, this spot is right next to the bustling Arden shopping area. Most folks don’t know how close they are to a beautiful outdoor space. I certainly didn’t. That may be why it’s a haven for illegal campers. Close to society, yet so far away. But for the wildlife, it’s their haven too. And the natural world needs our help.

The River City Waterway Alliance challenges Sacramento’s local groups, climate change activists and environmentalists to join them and make a sustainable difference!

People can visit the Facebook page for River City Waterway Alliance to find clean-up events and extra information.