Friday, August 18, 2006

Operation River Bright...trash talk

Volunteer for Operation River Bright
September 16 & 23

Much has been written about the floods that have plagued the Delaware River and its floodplain communities. The untold story about the floods is the enormous amount of trash, litter and debris that was left behind by the receding floodwaters. This unsightly plague of plastic, styrofoam and metal is a threat to the river and ultimately to the bay.

During a normal year, back in the day not so long ago when floods weren't the norm, most trash that ended up in the river came from three primary sources: inflow of litter that reaches tributary streams via urban and/or highway drainage systems; shoreline fishermen; and illegal dumping (tires, appliances, construction materials).

The floods have added an entirely new source of trash. Each of the last three floods has swept away the entire contents of homes, cottages, sheds, and backyards. In some cases entire cottages, sheds, portapotties and camping trailers were carried away and deposited on the river banks and islands. The floating docks built along riverfront communities like Carpentersville and Byram were also blown apart and scattered around the river. Floating docks are the source of all the blue barrels that dot the river banks.

The trash is dispersed along the entire length of the river, but clearly the lower Delaware River below the Water Gap, and especially below the Lehigh River is much more trashed than the upper and middle sections. The reason for that is there are more people, homes, drainage ditches, fastfood restaurants, malls, and highways. Paddling downriver from Smithfield Beach or Worthington State Park you will see very little in the way of ugly trash. But rounding the bend above the Water Gap at Interstate 80 and the confluence of Brodhead Creek, trash appears everywhere along the river banks, nestled within the Japanese Knotweed and nettles.

In some cases the trash blends in with trees, branches, twigs and other natural debris to form glacial piles of trash. These tend to occur on the outside bends of islands and at the upper ends of islands. Trash also accumulates in floating mats of flotsam that usually find a resting place in the smaller eddies that can be found along the edge of the river.

I look at the glacial piles of trash on Hendricks or Lynn Island and wonder what these would have looked like after the record flood of 1955. The answer is: PLASTIC. It simply would not have been there in '55.

The most ubiquitous and ugly type of human trash is plastic. Plastic bottles, silt fences, food-store bags, and the occasional Mr. Turtle Pool. Back in 1955 one might have found some glass bottles mixed in the flotsam and jetsam piles, but probably not very many since bottles were returnable back then. But hey, what do I know? I was only five in '55.

The most recent flood carried away portions of the glacial trash piles, and built a few new ones. The piles that were carried away made it to the tidal river, and I saw evidence of this while visiting the Riverkeeper boat at the D&S Marina in Tullytown. All the boats were surrounded by floating mats of trash, mostly plastic. I expect the Delaware Bay beaches will have a new influx of trash that may have originated as far away as Walnutport on the Lehigh River, or Lake Wallenpaupack on the Lackawaxen River. No doubt the trash does not go away, and it does migrate downstream.

This year we will attack the ugly trash that plagues the lower Delaware River. The emphasis of the 2006 Operation River Bright will be to attack this plague of plastic and remove it from the river and its surrounding environs.

ORB mostly needs canoes to do the job, but we also welcome kayakers and a few power boats would make the job easier too. Email me to sign up for Operation River Bright.

More details about ORB will appear in a forthcoming post to this blog.

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