Volunteers clean up San Gabriel River

DOWNEY - Last Saturday Keep Downey Beautiful, under the direction of Carol Rowland, held its inland version of Heal the Bay's annual Coastal Cleanup.Volunteers gathered at Rio San Gabriel Park next to the San Gabriel River, a few hundred yards north of Firestone Boulevard on the eastern edge of the city. In 1 1/2 hours those volunteers, including a large contingent of confirmands from St. Benedict Church, Montebello, gathered 80 large bags full of trash from the riverbed and its concrete banks, which also contained a segment of well-traveled weekend bike path. Another sizable group in attendance was the Kiwanis Green Team, consisting of student volunteers under the leadership of Gauldin Elementary teacher Alex Gaytan. While Heal the Bay's three-hour cleanup involved some 11,000 volunteers collecting 44,000 pounds of trash over 86 miles of LA-area beaches, the Downey cleanup--with 102 volunteers and up to 1,600 pounds of trash collected--provided its own significant impact in reducing the flow of litter to the ocean. The scene was striking: youth, adults, seniors, couples and families, most of them clad in neon orange vests provided by the city for visibility, though not as essential as usual in an untrafficked twenty-foot deep concrete riverbed. Everyone wore latex gloves and most carried waist-length pickup tools to avoid too much bending. Participants fanned out through sunflowered undergrowth amidst chunks of old concrete sidewalks placed to reduce the impact of potential flood waters. A bit further south, water flowed from an underground conduit on the Downey side of the river into the center of the channel, and green plants flourished at water's edge. As Rowland explained, the conduit is fed by catch basins from inside the city; in fact, according to the city's website, Downey utilizes 710 catch basins within its storm drain system. The fundamental principle at work in treating urban runoff through storm drains and catch basins is to emulate nature, allowing the water to clean itself by infiltrating through the soil before it empties into whatever river eventually carries it to the ocean. Such was the case here, and the water appeared pristinely limpid as it cheerily gurgled and flowed into the main channel. You could almost imagine yourself by a country stream--except for the expanses of concrete on every side. One volunteer photographed a few long-legged birds, which were identified by avian biologist Anna Valcarcel as Black-necked Stilts. What seems significant about the birds' presence is that Black-necked Stilts normally choose coastal wetlands as a habitat. So the mere presence of these Stilts plausibly signaled their unspoken approval of this wannabe wetlands environment. Valcarcel was doing triple duty at the cleanup, not only through her volunteer contribution as a conservation biologist, but also as a member of the City of Downey Green Task Force, and by providing an information table focused primarily on water quality issues. Other members of the Green Task Force in attendance were educator Sean Ashton, joined by his family, and architect Jose Maga?±a. Not widely known to all there was the fact that the Coastal Cleanup is a statewide event sponsored by the California Coastal Commission. Along the entire California coastline last Saturday over 60,000 volunteers picked up almost 600,000 pounds of trash. The statewide event, in fact, was one piece of an International Coastal Cleanup begun twenty-five years ago by the Ocean Conservancy, an international group with significant U.S. leadership. So -- unbeknownst to most of Downey's volunteers at the San Gabriel River last Saturday -- they joined half a million other participants worldwide in an ongoing global movement to help clean up the world's oceans.

********** Published: September 22, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 23