The summertime ritual of floating the Boise River is a tradition with locals, but as their heinies dip into the chilled waters what sits on the bottom–inches from their own–may surprise and disgust some. All you have to do is put on a snorkel and mask and look. While the 15-pound carp may shock you as they sit silently despite tubers floating inches above their heads, what may be more amazing is the amount of trash. Saturated diapers, flip-flops, paddles, broken bottles and thousands of cans litter the bottom of the river. If the same amount of trash were spread on a city street it would have neighbors making midnight calls to the mayor’s office. So who is responsible for this river bottom cleanup? Apparently the public is.
Chris Nelson has a ritual, too. Every Sunday morning during the summer he drives to Boise from Nampa, eats a hearty breakfast at Denny’s near the airport and then drives down to the river take-out at Ann Morrison Park. There, he gets his wetsuit, mask, fins, snorkel, float tube and mesh bag and waits for someone to respond to his sign. which offers a $2 bounty for a ride to Barber Park. Usually by 11:30 a.m. he’s putting on his quarter-inch wetsuit, donning his mask and generating strange looks from people filling up their tubes and rafts. Then he dives in, skims across the bottom of the river and begins picking up trash. Chris works for the Nampa School District where his job responsibilities have nothing to do with the river. He spends his free time cleaning up the public’s mess.
On our own recent Sunday float, we noticed Nelson dragging a huge bag of trash secured to his tube. He filled the bag with cans and refuse from the water. At the Ann Morrison take-out he pulled the huge bag out of the water and dumped it into one of the trash bins. A cell phone, a crutch, hundreds of cans and plastic bags were among the refuse and all were filthy with algae and muck. He said he could fill a couple of rafts per trip, but he has just one bag.
Nelson began his weekly ritual as a result of losing his glasses while on a float trip of his own. Being a diver he returned the next day and was looking for them in the river and noticed all the stuff on the bottom. A treasure hunter at heart, he began floating the river looking for such “goodies” as sunglasses, fishing lures, wallets, paddles–whatever people carelessly dropped and lost in the river. He wasn’t the only one. He knows of other divers who do the same, collecting cans or searching for goodies. After doing that for a short while he became disgusted with the amount of trash he saw and began picking up everything.
“Sometimes you can’t help but lose things in the rapids,” he said. He’s returned three wallets and many ID cards to their owners. “One Japanese tourist wanted to pay me to go find their car keys. They weren’t sure where in the river they were. I’ve found a drowned ferret and wondered who would bring their pet on a float trip. The most tragic was finding some kid’s prescription glasses.” A few weekends ago he found a fishing rod and a bag of algae-covered diving equipment.
Nelson, who is an experienced diver, does not recommend donning your snorkel and mask for a leisurely float. He warns there are some dangerous parts of the river, such as deep vortexes in some of the rapids that can hold divers down.
Nelson volunteers to clean the river because he is disgusted with all the debris. He is not paid for his efforts, nor is it his responsibility. So who is officially responsible for keeping the river clean?
Eight agencies oversee four jurisdictions as one floats along the Boise River. Ada County Parks and Waterways deals with trash everyday along the river. Director Pat Beale said on a busy day they sometimes empty the trash bins at Ann Morrison five times. This year they put in two recycle stations and because of demand and usage, have requested two more.
The Boise Parks and Recreation Department maintains the cleanup of trashcans and trash in the parks and along the river. Jerry Pugh, volunteer coordinator with Boise Parks and Recreation, says he and his Greenbelt staff continually check for trash along the river but they coordinate and rely on volunteers to help out with the effort. Established in 1995 the Adopt-a-River Program allows groups and individuals to adopt a section of riverbank to keep clean. The program has had some success but it’s a Sisyphean effort.
So while the city and county make sure trash is picked up from the streets, parks and the banks of the river–trash visible to the naked eye–who is responsible for the river itself? Basically the state of Idaho is. Technically, the riverbeds of all navigable waterways in the state of Idaho are part of the public trust and are managed by the Idaho Department of State Lands. But they don’t have any trash cleanup responsibilities. The Department of Environmental Quality monitors rivers for problems and reports to the Environmental Protection Agency. Idaho Rivers United, a nonprofit conservation organization isn’t certain who would be responsible for cleanup. Our efforts to find the agency or department responsible resulted not in finger pointing, but in bewilderment. It seems no state department or agency is responsible for cleanup of the river bottoms, nor has there ever been. It is an issue none of the departments have had to deal with.
That is not to say you won’t find any governmental agencies in the river managing it at all. Jerry Stallsmith, city forester for the Boise Community Forestry Department of the Boise Parks and Recreation, says that with the assistance of the fire department dive team, his staff clears out major hazards liked downed trees in the river every spring. But that doesn’t mean they make it completely safe. Nor are they after any trash.
The City of Boise and Ada County agencies do work with volunteer groups and cleanups. One such event is the Boise River Sweep (see info box on next page). For three years the annual river cleanup in September has picked up trash in the river. A Boise Water Sports dive team sweeps across the river and volunteers scour the riverbanks. In 2002, 350 people picked up 30 cubic yards of trash including 120 pounds of aluminum and 40 pounds of plastic. In 2003, 450 people filled 10 dumpsters’ worth of trash.
So it seems that cleanup of the riverbed is left up to the citizens. When we first witnessed Chris Nelson about a month ago he seemed angry as someone asked him what he was doing. He had every right. He’s mad that people trash the river, but at least he’s doing something about it. While he is collecting trash from the bottom he says people actually try to hand him their empty cans while floating the river. He reminds them of the trashcans at the takeout and wants to hand them his trash so he can pick up more. Others notice and praise his efforts. Last year he was awarded a citizen’s commendation from the Boise Police Department for his volunteerism and occasionally someone will give him money as a thank you after seeing him pull out his big bag of trash. But he doesn’t do it for fame or money. He does it because he’s disgusted with the amount of trash on the bottom of the river. And with increased parking at Barber Park and more and more people using the river, he doesn’t expect the trash situation to improve.
Dona Horan, a fisheries biologist by day and volunteer coordinator for the Idaho Rivers United in her spare time, has been collecting aluminum cans in one particular eddy in a side channel of the Boise River near Parkcenter Bridge for almost three years. Three years ago she picked up 450 cans during one summer month. This year, she plucked 1,100 cans from the same eddy during the same month. “More people are using the river, so we’ll see an increase in trash,” she said. You might see the result of her volunteer efforts around town at events. She and students from Boise State have built a giant Can Man out of what she has collected and display it to remind people to pack out their own trash when they float the river.
In retrospect, the Boise River today is perhaps the cleanest it has been in 50 years, but it’s far from pristine. Sixty years ago meat packers dumped blood and guts into the river. Heavy metals and raw sewage made their way downstream because historically people thought of rivers as giant conveyor belts provided by nature to whisk away trash, sewage and unwanted things. During the 1960s, after Lucky Peak Dam sealed the river, there were massive fish kills every summer when the water flows were low, a result of concentrated pollutants.
Then Congress passed the Clean Water Act and Boise began to pay serious attention to its namesake river. In 1973 the bacterial concentration was 10 percent of the amount just seven years earlier. Over the last 30 years conservation efforts, river cleanups and an attention to the health of the river have brought back the wild rainbow trout population and returned brown trout and whitefish populations to healthy levels despite intense fishing pressure. Humans have returned to the river, too, the numbers increasing every year. Efforts in recent years to keep the river clean through annual clean-ups like Boise Parks and Recreation’s Adopt-a-River Program, groups that regularly dive the river to gather trash, and citizen volunteers such as Chris Nelson have made progress, but ongoing education and public awareness of the need to protect the precious resource that is the Boise River is important.
Jessica Hixson, development director for Idaho Rivers United says IRU is coming up with ideas on how to keep the river clean. These include summer education programs, providing mesh trash bags with every rental at Barber Park, adding trash cans at targeted rest stops along the six-mile section that people float, and more public education of the increasing trash problem may stem the tide of increased usage. In the end, it’s left up to the people that use it. If you take it on the river, take it out.