ARCATA BOTTOM – Liscom Slough, a tributary of Humboldt Bay on Jackson Ranch Road, has long been a dumping ground for trash. It is just one of many sites where unwanted materials are illegally dumped.
Ted Halstead has been watching over the slough for 15 years. When he has time, after spotting trash on his bike ride, Halstead will clean up any messes he finds – and as Eye readers know, he finds a lot of them – and drives the debris away to dispose of it properly.
Finally, his efforts to clean up Liscom Slough have galvanized county agencies to seriously consider the local dumping crisis in coordinated fashion for the first time.
“Dumping has always been a problem,” California Coastal Commission Coastal Planner Melissa Kraemer, said. “But the involvement of community members like Ted have provided an impetus for interagency efforts.”
On May 21, Halstead, community members and representatives of multiple agencies, including the California Coastal Commission, the Humboldt Bay Recreation and Conservation District, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the Humboldt County Division of Environmental Health convened on the slough site to discuss solutions to the pollution issue.
“Obviously dumping is illegal. Even dumping soil, people may not think about how that may cause a problem but it is very disruptive to these habitats,” Kraemer said.
This deliberate pollution occurs all over the county, not just at Liscom slough. Kraemer reports hearing that just about any turnout on an abandoned, less-traveled road is a potential dumping area.
“As I started doing my bike rides around there, I saw that the bat rays would come in and out in the summer time and I learned that the larval form of the Dungeness crab would come up into the upper reaches of the slough, come down and migrate into the ocean,” Halstead said. “I got this sense just from looking out from the top of the bridge that there is a larger connection. Then I saw things like the sardines coming in to spawn, the herrings come in to spawn. I saw that the slough was used year round by organisms.”
Aldaron Laird, environmental planner and owner of Trinity Associates, assessed the 102-mile shoreline of Humboldt Bay and also observed the harmful effects of dumping in places like the slough.
“When I kayaked through, I saw all kinds of trash that people have been dumping,” Laird said. “Even fertilizer, which can cause algal blooms and isn’t healthy for the area.”
This pollution is dangerous to the local marine life, as well as visually jarring.
Halstead often submits pictures of his trash findings from the slough to the Arcata Eye. The floating computer monitors, auto parts and other junk pervade the picturesque slough.
“The people who care, care. That’s all I can say. It’s really a basic thing. It either makes sense to care about it or not,” Halstead said.
Those who don’t care, as Halstead puts it, are both random drive-by dumpers and owners of property on the slough who illegally dispose of their trash.
Property owners can be identified and addressed. But drive-by dumpers are rarely caught.
On a few occasions, dumpers have accidentally thrown away documents with personal information with their trash, in which case they can also be located.
Otherwise, most perpetrators get away with their pollution.
Not only do these anonymous dumpers need to be identified, but the pollution in Liscom Slough and other coastal areas also needs to be prevented as well as cleaned up.
Finding a solution
The issue was brought to the attention of several local agencies that decided to collectively consider solutions.
At the May meeting, representatives from each agency explained their points of view and what their department could do to help. Spearheading this interagency effort is Humboldt Bay Recreation and Conservation’s Director of Conservation Division Dan Berman.
“There are a couple local citizens who’ve been serving as sort of caretakers and they clean up the slough. They were bringing it to my attention and I got especially concerned,” Berman said. “I just wanted to try and get some of the people together and talk, make sure we understand what the different roles of the different agencies are and what we can try and do about it.”
However, although the jurisdictions of the different agencies overlap in some areas of the pollution issue, they don’t exist in others such as enforcement and cleanup, leaving holes in possible solutions.
“The Coastal Commission office doesn’t have the resources to put someone out there to patrol the area,” Kraemer said. “We are able to impose fines and penalties on property owners and we can get our enforcement staff to work with the alleged violator to restore the damage. It becomes a problem on Jackson Ranch Road where you just have these random people dumping. It’s a little bit tricky for us to enforce.”
Further, most of the California Coastal Commission’s enforcement staff is based in San Francisco and works from there.
“[Humboldt Bay Recreation and Conservation] might have some enforcement power but we’ve never tested that really,” Berman said. “It’s tricky to catch people in the act, and frankly kind of hard to, due to reasonable limitations of resources. Some of the people [at the meeting] expressed concern that even with if we could sort of catch someone in the act or identify them, Humboldt’s safety resources between the district attorney and the chair of secretary are stretched up out more serious criminal activities.”
Identifying and dealing with the perpetrators itself is a difficulty, let alone cleaning up the already polluted area.
“What we have been doing is basically subsidizing some of the cleanup accomplished by the community members,” Berman said. “We’ve been offering that some of these folks bring some of the waste they clean up to us and we’ve been covering the dumping fees for it.”
There is no specific job in the different agencies dedicated to cleaning up the various dumpsites.
“The county Public Health Department have some people to deal with illegal dumping but as far as I can tell, so far, they’re not really in the business of having actually picking other’s trash. It’s not part of their roles to actually to clean this stuff and haul it away,” Berman said.
For now, it seems as though community members like Halstead are fulfilling that role.
“I’m a person who has cared some and there are others have cared some and now, I don’t know how we’re going to take it to the next level,” Halstead said.
However, due to the agencies’ lack of resources and the complexity of the pollution, a solution has yet to be found.
“I don’t think there’s any magic or some brilliant solution we can identify that’s going to resolve the problem,” said Berman.
Kraemer said, “There isn’t a silver bullet for this sort of thing.”
The different agencies discussed the logistics for possible solutions, such as cameras, fences and increasing presence and patrol.
The meeting discussed mounting a camera on a piece of stationary trash out in the slough or using the same kind of infrared cameras used to capture wildlife on film to identify the perpetrators of the pollution.
“That kind of action is expensive,” said Kraemer. “And the possibility of the surveillance equipment being stolen of vandalized makes it not a good idea.”
The idea of building a fence around the entire slough was also turned down.
“I don’t think that’s any kind of solution,” Halstead said.
A fence not only contradicts the Coastal Commission’s mission by restricting public access and visually disrupting the area, but it could also be vandalized, or simply ignored.
“Geographically, the location makes it hard. There’s no one out there,” Laird said. “We talked about increasing the presence of people out there. The more that people pay attention the better.”
The meeting discussed enlisting nearby businesses, like Sun Valley farms, to have their employees keep an eye out as they drive by the slough on their way to and from work or asking Humboldt State University to use the slough as a place for research and observation for wildlife classes or even for landscape painting classes.
“It’s important to get the right kind of people out there,” said Halstead. “The more people see that the area is used and appreciated or at least watched, dumpers will hopefully be scared away in fear of getting caught.”
Halstead has noticed that dumping encourages more dumping. “It just seems like it’s accepted that it’s a dump off now and I don’t get that. We could ask the Coast Guard to drive through every day or get the boat ramp to be built out there. Increase the presence of people who would appreciate the area.”
So far, the agencies have, when possible, identified and contacted the property owners who have been dumping on the slough. But larger issues with anonymous dumpers, the cleanup and the prevention of the pollution have yet to be resolved.
“I do expect to hold the fall meeting,” Berman said. “I think it’s going to have to involve the public agencies and local citizens. I think it’s one of these things where public education and public engagement is really important to asking the community, at large, to keep an eye out and call the district when you do see trash.”
While the different agencies sort out their abilities to address this issue, community members’ efforts keep the slough in check. Halstead and Friends of the Dune are in the planning stages of a Liscom slough clean up scheduled for July 21.
“It’s a really unique place. You feel like you’re away and close to nature,” said Halstead. “I hope something comes of this.”