By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Last month, the San Diego River Park Foundation (SDRPF) released its annual State of the River Report — and, according to SDRPF CEO Rob Hutsel, the results are “kind of sad.”
The annual report is a field survey of issues along the lower 20 miles of the river, where volunteers record the amount and types of trash along the river, as well as collect data on non-native plants, broken benches and graffiti.
During the “October River Blitz,” 107 people came out over two weekends, donated over 494 volunteer hours and documented 170,000 pounds of trash along river between Friars Road and Interstate 5.
“The part that’s even sadder to me is that amount is 91.9 percent of all the trash that was surveyed along the 20 miles,” Hutsel said.
The report also found that there are 56 active homeless encampments in Mission Valley, as well as a concentration of abandoned encampments located near the MTS ponds in western Mission Valley.
“This is probably the worst area along the entire river,” Hutsel said, adding that SDRPF is starting to work with MTS to get permission to go on the property to help clean out the trash in that area.
Once that happens, the area should see improvements like neighboring areas along the river have seen.
“The good news is, if you go immediately downstream to where the Little League field is, all the way down toward I-5/Pacific Highway/Morena Boulevard, as of last [month] the entire site is clean,” Hutsel said. “When I started picking up trash 16, 17, 18 years ago in this area, I couldn’t even imagine the day.”
Hutsel said that in that area of the Mission Valley preserve, they only found evidence of two homeless people living there, down from over 120.
“The notion is that people working together can make a difference — the city of San Diego, park rangers in particular, are doing an awesome job,” he said. “Our volunteers are out there and other groups are out there. A lot of energy goes into keeping your public park, which is what this is, a dedicated park for Mission Valley, clean.”
The next “emerging threat” to keeping the river clean is the area around Qualcomm Stadium, Hutsel said. The city of San Diego is currently removing non-native plants from the land it owns around the stadium — which is also where the largest number of active encampments are.
“What we’re starting to see is those folks who are living there starting to move downstream, if you will, toward the 805 bridge.”
Part of the area the homeless are moving into is private property owned by the Fenton family, some owned by Caltrans and most still owned by city’s public utility department, Hutsel said and added that multiple agencies, including the Fire Department, are working against the clock to solve the homeless issue along the river.
“Not too long from now, Mission Valley will begin to see rain. We’ll begin to see the flood waters rise on a more consistent basis. Those people are in harm’s way,” he said. “It’s just tragic. Every year multiple people die in the river because of this.”
In January, SDRPF will participate in another survey called We All Count to document the number of homeless along the river. Addressing the homeless issue is now the most effective way to address cleaning the river, Hutsel said, because nearly all the trash along it is caused by homeless camps.
When surveys began, the percentage of trash attributed to homelessness was around 30 percent. Now that number is 95 percent. All of the trash caused by dumping sites, litter and stormwater trash has “pretty much been resolved,” Hutsel said.
Since January 2016, volunteers have removed over 200,000 pounds of trash from the river — most from Mission Valley. Right now, there is again about 200,000 pounds.
“It’s a revolving door,” Hutsel said, adding that the challenges to addressing the homeless and trash problems are that it takes multiple agency efforts with lots of different land owners to come together to get it done.
“This is something that is more than a private property owner’s responsibility,” he said. “It is a community’s responsibility to try to figure out how we can address the more than 80 tons of trash — that once we pick it up, it will all come back. So, we got to address homelessness and help those people get out of there.”
For more information on the State of the River report, information on volunteering for river cleanups and other activities, visit the SDRPF website at sandiegoriver.org.
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.