American River Parkway floodwater recedes, leaving trail of trash for agencies to clear

Trash strewn along American River Parkway after high water levels drop

Trash remains in the weeds along Garden Highway, on Northgate Boulevard and at the Watt Avenue access point.
Up Next
Trash remains in the weeds along Garden Highway, on Northgate Boulevard and at the Watt Avenue access point.

As floodwater recedes from the American River Parkway, plastic bags, bottles, bike parts and shopping carts remain on banks and tree branches, sparking a new partnership between county departments to hasten the clean up.

Director of Regional Parks Jeff Leatherman said this week that his department is coordinating with waste management and recycling staff to cart garbage and plant remains out of the parkway, which stretches 23 miles from Discovery Park to Lake Natoma.

The popular greenbelt was closed due to heavy flooding last month as the American River reached its highest level since 1997. Discovery Park remains underwater and is not expected to open until May, but other sections have slowly dried out under clear skies. The county announced Thursday that the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail is open from miles 6 to 23 with one detour.

Leatherman said there are a few things he expects to see left behind. Debris, sand and silt have accumulated in parking lots at access points, particularly at the Harrington, Watt Avenue and Howe areas. Parking lot cleanup takes significant time and effort, he said.

On the dirt trail used by horseback riders and hikers, workers have started dealing with downed trees and branches where the water has cleared. Crews must wait for water to recede before clearing other parts of the parkway, particularly on the first few miles of the trail in Sacramento.

Leatherman said it’s harder to figure out how to get trash out of trees. When the river rises as high as it did this month, it can reach tree branches that are normally 20 or 30 feet off the ground. Anything floating on the surface, like plastic bags, gets caught in branches and left behind when water recedes.

Some equipment from illegal campers may have gotten caught up in floodwaters, but Leatherman said maintenance staff and rangers worked hard to remove as many camping items and trash from the parkway as possible before the water level rose.

Using data from past high water years, “we essentially worked our way backward from the lower areas to the higher areas,” he said.

Trash left in places inaccessible by roads pose the biggest challenge. Cleanup on the parkway can be time-intensive because typical garbage trucks can’t get to where the most trash gathers – illegal campsites. Workers have to bag the trash and then carry it out to the truck.

That’s where the Department of Waste Management and Recycling comes in.

Leatherman said parks officials are looking at using some small tractors from the waste department to cut down on time spent carrying bags out.

“As soon as you bring in heavy equipment, then you have to evaluate the impact on the roads and trails that you’re using that equipment on,” he said.

It’s a new approach because the Department of Waste Management and Recycling usually serves residential customers rather than hauling for agencies like Regional Parks, which contracts with commercial haulers to cart away waste from the parkway.

Sacramento County and the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District may collaborate to clean up the parkway, but they have worked out few details, said district spokeswoman Claudia Goss.

Beyond the immediate cleanup, Leatherman wants to expand park maintenance in the years ahead. He asked county supervisors Tuesday for eight additional employees, five of whom would spend some or all of their time devoted to the American River Parkway.

Ellen Garrison: 916-321-1920, @EllenGarrison

Related stories from Sacramento Bee