Jeff Jardine

The more group cleans, the less junk gleaned from Tuolumne River

Volunteers wade through the water of the Tuolumne River to find trash during the 9-2-99 cleanup in Modesto, Calif., on Sunday, May 22, 2016.
Volunteers wade through the water of the Tuolumne River to find trash during the 9-2-99 cleanup in Modesto, Calif., on Sunday, May 22, 2016.

Some folks obviously have a greater affinity than others for the Tuolumne River, Dry Creek and the parks along them.

That explains why you never see the people who make the messes out there helping to clean them up.

Who does? Once again, Chris Guptill’s Operation 9-2-99 this past weekend pulled out trash, tires, old shopping carts and anything else Mother Nature haters have dumped into or along the Tuolumne over the years. The 9’s in the organization’s name mean from the Ninth Street Bridge to Highway 99. In fact, the group – which this time drew 30 volunteers but on two other occasions enlisted more than 100 participants – organizes these cleanups monthly and works with the Tuolumne River Trust to make the river worth using, not abusing.

Its their 23rd cleanup project in the past two years, though Guptill, Darin Jesberg of the Dry Creek Trails group and some other folks return to previously cleaned areas most days to pick up newly dumped trash before it piles up again to the point where another major cleanup is needed there. These efforts involve not only volunteers but also officials from California Fish and Wildlife, the city of Modesto and other agencies.

Many of their efforts have involved the parks and banks, from which they’ve hauled away remnants of countless homeless encampments along with trash washed downstream from points east – tons and tons of it over the years. They’ve hauled away old shoes, shirts, pants and coats, drug paraphernalia and pornography left to rot among the weeds. Guptill and the volunteers often find themselves cleaning up piles of construction materials – broken drywall, shake roofing, wood trimmings and such – lining the banks along Zeff and other roads along the river.

“I think people are feeling empowered,” Jesberg said. “(Along Dry Creek) we’ve seen less vandalism, graffiti, broken fixtures and more. We want people to be proud of the area.”

This time, though, they focused on the river bottom itself. By the time they finished, they’d extracted 10,000 pounds worth of soggy junk, including 79 tires, some of those from big trucks. Other efforts also have targeted the riverbed, but never to this extent.

“Nobody’s done the river itself like they did this weekend,” said Patrick Koepele, executive director of the Tuolumne River Trust.

While they’ve had to clean some stretches of the banks repeatedly, they’ve noticed they are making a more permanent impact. Cleaning up the river and its banks encourages more folks to want to use it for recreation. And when they do, the others – the area’s more porcine-like pedestrians – don’t.

Why? Because most of those who live down along the river and trash it don’t fancy the company, Guptill said. They are more reclusive. Thus, when more people paddle the river in kayaks and canoes, swim and use the parks for fun, the others are likely to go somewhere else – either further upstream or downstream to find their solitude and clutter up another place instead.

That hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders can now follow trails – some official, others simply blazed – all the way from Gateway Park at the confluence of Dry Creek and the Tuolumne downstream to the Carpenter Road Bridge means a stretch of the river is being reclaimed. And by the end of next summer, the dangerous Dennett Dam could be gone, opening the river to better paddling opportunities, Koepele said.

The Tuolumne River Trust has taken the lead on removing the dam, built of steel to create a recreational lake in the 1930s. It’s now a dangerous eyesore where several people have drowned over the years. The trust has the drawing-board money.

“We have all of the funds for the planning,” Koepele said. “But we don’t have enough money for actually removing it.”

That will entail building smaller coffer dams to redirect the river flow around the existing dam, allowing it to dry out so heavy equipment can come in and remove the steel plating sunk deep into the riverbed. The work must be done in mid- to late summer, when the water level traditionally is at its lowest. But it won’t happen this summer.

Through grants and other sources, Koepele expects to have the finances in place for Dennett Dam to disappear in August 2017.

When that monstrosity is out of the water, paddlers will be able to navigate long stretches of the river, water hyacinths permitting. That, both in turn and in theory, will generate more folks using the river for fun, and fewer fouling it.

Until then, appreciate what Guptill and the volunteers of Operation 9-2-99 are doing, or undoing.