By Paula White, Contra Costa County Coastal Cleanup Coordinator
Before the pandemic, when we had live events on Coastal Cleanup Day, September would have been the time when site captains across the state were madly preparing for live events. This year our preparations look a little different, as we are relying on the public to self-organize and self-supply their cleanups around their neighborhoods. To help inspire you to participate in this year’s Coastal Cleanup events, I asked Contra Costa County’s site captains to talk about what motivates them to clean up year after year.
John Dye hails from across the Bay in San Rafael and has brought kayakers to Coastal Cleanup Day at the Shimada Friendship Park since 2013. John had been looking for an organization to partner with on a water-based cleanup and heard about The Watershed Project’s Shimada Friendship Park Cleanup. The land-based cleanup at Shimada got a welcome boost from the water approach, as kayakers were able to access the breakwater area where trash naturally collects but is inaccessible from land.
John co-founded Rivers for Change with Danielle Katz in 2011. Their mission is to connect people to rivers from source to sea through experiences that help people understand the riverine ecosystem and threats. While kayaking down a river, they get people to notice changes. For example, algae is an indicator of climate change. As algae moves upstream due to warming temperatures, it has an economic impact on water treatment costs. As John put it, “Having information is good for rivers.”
Heidi Petty is the site captain of the Crockett Waterfront, Peyton Slough, and the Rodeo Creek Watershed. Rodeo used to be clogged with shopping carts and other debris. One year on Coastal Cleanup Day Heidi, her sons, and the rest of their Boy Scout troop hauled out 17 shopping carts. Armed with a couple of years of data, Heidi wrote a letter to Safeway Corporate and demanded a solution. The corporate office responded by forcing the Rodeo store adjacent to the creek to install wheel locking carts. No more carts in the creek after that! Heidi commented, “It made the data that we were collecting mean something.”
Heidi first got involved with watershed stewardship as a child in Chico. Her mother believed in volunteering, and took Heidi along. She was also a Girl Scout. Her first event at the age of 7 was cleaning up after a fish kill on the Chico River. The fish kill happened because of an attempt to poison an invasive species at a “contained spot”, which of course didn’t work. Some of the poison flowed downstream resulting in the fish kill. Fast forward several decades, Heidi was at a crossroads in her life and heard about a position with the Contra Costa County Resource Conservation District (RCD). Despite having a degree in neurology, a friend encouraged her to apply since she had the knowledge they were looking for: an understanding of hydrology and how watersheds work, connections with the local community, and a passion for the environment. She got the job and soon found herself leading her first Coastal Cleanup event at Rodeo Creek.
Vencel Alfred’s commitment to watershed stewardship also began as a child. He spent summers fishing on the Delta with his family and going camping in their RV. He was taught to “leave no trace,” to pack all trash out and to make sure the campsite looked better when they left than when they got there. Now Vencel works for YES Nature to Neighborhoods, whose
mission is to remove barriers to being in nature for the youth of Richmond, and to “diversify the face of the outdoors” to show that people of color can be outdoors too. Youth summer camps are the core of the program, starting with 8-9 year olds and continuing through high school age. By the time they are teenagers, youth who have gained years of camping experience learn leadership skills as counselors in training, and some go on to paid positions as camp counselors. YES also runs family camps in the middle of the Redwood forest in Occidental for an immersive nature experience for all ages.
In addition to camps, YES creates experiences for youth of being in nature while giving back to the community. Vencel’s first Coastal Cleanup Day was at Baxter Creek near San Pablo Avenue in Richmond. He was leading a group of youth on a bike trip on the Greenway. They stopped for an hour to help clean up, and then continued on to the El Cerrito Norte BART station. Vencel commented that cleaning up gave them a sense of cohesion with the planet, of doing their part to make the world a better place.
Lorena Castillo’s first Coastal Cleanup Day was at the Martinez Marina. Lorena was working for the Youth Conservation Corps and brought a group to help set up and participate in cleaning up. She also helped clean up at the annual Martinez Beaver festival, and one year decided to create art out of what she found–her creation, a beaver. A daughter of immigrants from Mexico, Lorena was born in San Francisco and has lived in many communities, gradually moving east: Oakland, Walnut Creek, Concord, and now in Martinez. Lorena’s passion for environmental stewardship began in college. She attended the Brooks Institute for the Arts in Santa Barbara and got a degree in photography. Santa Barbara was very progressive–they discouraged people from ordering take out food because of the waste.
When she moved back to the Bay Area, she worked as a reporter and then got involved with a local high school working with youth. That turned into an internship as a youth outreach coordinator. While there she earned the nickname “Mrs. Green” from her boss who scoffed at her for taking home trash from the workplace and sorting out the recyclables at home. Another older coworker thought that recycling was a “hoax.” This mindset helped solidify her decision to focus on working with youth because she could “see them transform” and they had the “rest of their lives to influence others.”
I asked each of the Site Captains what we could do to reduce plastic waste. Here’s what they said:
John: A company that used to buy cases of beverages, including water bottles, switched to a filtered water dispenser system called Bevi with options for adding flavors and carbonation. It can be activated by a smartphone (touchless).
Heidi: Find the source of the pollution, then go after them! What’s next for Rodeo Creek? The local Goodwill store, which needs to install dumpsters to handle the used baby items they won’t accept.
Vencel: It starts with manufacturing. Plastic initially was hailed as a great solution to some problems, such as killing elephants for ivory. Now we’ve gone too far, and need to think what we could replace plastic with.
Lorena: Encourage people to bring their own containers. A friend of hers used to bring a container to the local taqueria. They would fill it and give it back. In Mexico, you have to bring back your six pack of empty bottles and cans before you can buy more. If there’s one missing, they’ll take one out.
Here at The Watershed Project we hope you’ll be inspired by these dedicated Coastal Cleanup site captains to participate in cleaning the shore from your front door and to join us in a conversation after you watch The Story of Plastic from the comfort of your living room, this Sunday, September 13, at 3 pm.