A couple of days ago, a Modesto couple came into The Bee’s newsroom bearing a photo and a complaint:
There’s a guy who frequently bathes – choose your favorite term among au naturel, in the buff or bare-butt and buck-naked – in the Tuolumne River near the old Seventh Street Bridge. The bridge also is known as the Lion Bridge because of the statues adorning it. This nude dude, the couple said, is an embarrassment to the city. He bares all in broad daylight, stooping to scrub up and rinse away the grime he presumably accrues while living on the streets. Anyone, including children, can see him from the bridge sidewalk, they lamented.
There are a couple of ways to look at this. First, at least the guy seems to value cleanliness, or thinks he does. Many on the streets don’t, whether because of mental illness, drug addiction or wanting nothing to do with homeless shelters that offer showers.
Conversely, he obviously hasn’t seen the reports regarding the water quality of Dry Creek, which flows into the Tuolumne. Otherwise, he might rethink his bathing routine.
Between animals and humans, the fecal coliform levels in Dry Creek range from double to five times what is considered normal, depending upon the location of the testing station. The report cites possible unreported sewer overflows, waterfowl in the watershed and homeless who go, well, wherever is convenient when nature calls. Many transients have pets that defile the creek banks as well. Some of the bacteria comes from penned animals upstream. Dry Creek begins well into eastern Stanislaus County and passes through numerous livestock areas.
Thomas Sinclair, the city of Modesto’s environmental regulatory compliance administrator, first studied the water quality in 2011 and updates the testing periodically. He said water quality in the Tuolumne, poor three years ago, has improved since. But the lower end of Dry Creek remains – well, I think the scientific term would be “yucky.”
Tainted water combined with trash that litters the waterways and their banks constitute the real problem along Dry Creek and the Tuolumne River, both of which people, young children among them, use to cool off on hot summer days.
The Tuolumne should be the gem of the community. A source of commerce before the La Grange and Don Pedro dams were built, riverboats traveled the Tuolumne as far upstream as Empire from late winter into the early summer. Dennett Dam once offered a prime swimming hole before the dam became a safety hazard.
Imagine if the area had been developed commercially, with restaurants and shops lining the banks or bluffs of a well-kept river. The city imagined such in 2005, proposing a $20 million plan including pedestrian and bike trails, a fishing pier, playgrounds, an open-air market and more. Soon after, the recession hit and backers had neither the money nor political will to push it as the city faced cutbacks at all levels, including public safety.
Consequently, what should be a focal point is instead a fecal point.
Additionally, some residents dump their lawn clippings and garden refuse into the waterways, said Phil McKay, a state Fish & Wildlife warden. Combined with trash, the organic matter adversely affects the water’s oxygen supply. That, in turn, causes algae blooms and kills some of what fish feed upon. And the ammonia created by animal feces can kill fish because it damages their gills, which are used to extract oxygen from the water.
The Modesto police, the state Department of Fish & Wildlife, Union Pacific Railroad and the Tuolumne River Preservation Trust work in unison on the north bank of the river and still can’t keep it clean despite several major campaigns each year. On April 5 – Love Modesto day – about 250 people are expected to volunteer for the trust’s tidying of the Tuolumne. Then, others will love trashing it again within a few short weeks – guaranteed.
Law enforcement agencies including the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department, which is responsible for the southern bank, simply don’t have the officers available to patrol the river daily and stem the polluters and abusers. A few years ago, I wrote a column about a hoarder who carted several cubic yards of sheer junk to the south footing of the Lion Bridge. Sheriff Adam Christianson sent an inmate crew to clean it up.
“Our resources are depleted,” Christianson said. “Unfortunately, we’re reactive, not proactive. Being mentally ill is not illegal. There’s no way to force the issue. Its a difficult position in terms of public safety.”
Modesto police officer John Wohler said another hoarder defiantly hauls junk to the north bank, responding to cleanups by bringing more stuff to the area within days. Officers have issued citations or made arrests for everything from indecent exposure to drug possession, but problems continue.
In decent water years, Wohler and McKay patrol the river by boat. It enables them to get to the more remote spots and confront those camping on the river. But that hasn’t been the case as the drought has dragged on into its third year.
“We haven’t been able to run a boat in about a year,” Wohler said. “There are places where it’s ankle deep.”
And some of the people camping along the river have encountered something you’d expect along the Mekong River in Southeast Asia – not the Tuolumne River in southeast Modesto.
“Some of them have had leeches on them,” Wolher said.
Christianson confirmed that his deputies have encountered the same thing among other transients and pointed to the cost to the taxpayers for their mental and medical care.
I wonder if the nude dude knows about the leeches, too.