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River Trash: Whose Mess Is It, Anyway? 

The great debate of social responsibility vs. district duties continues

Local concerned citizens have been fishing out rubbish from the rivers in an attempt to keep our rivers clean. Photos courtesy of Katy Bryce.

Local concerned citizens have been fishing out rubbish from the rivers in an attempt to keep our rivers clean. Photos courtesy of Katy Bryce.

Trash. Garbage. Refuse. Waste. Litter goes by many names and comes in many forms, but whatever you call it, during the summer season in Bend, it is becoming more and more prevalent. As sun-seeking tourists and residents alike flood the river with inflatable fiestas, garbage is accumulating in their wake. The associated raft rentals, snow cone purchases and hotel stays spur the local economy, but locals who live and play along the river are increasingly wondering whether it's really worth it, when they find themselves cleaning up the litter left behind.

Bend writer Katy Bryce ignited a passionate online conversation last week when she posted photos of a trash-strewn beach at Miller's Landing, which she and a handful of longtime Bend residents quickly decided to clean up themselves.

But who is truly responsible for keeping the river clean? Is it Bend Parks and Recreation, which ferries floaters between put-in and take-out? Or a few individual landowners whose properties line the float path? Local volunteer organizations? The floaters themselves?

The answer is yes. They are all responsible for their own part of the process, creating a patchwork cleaning crew of public and private parties that currently, despite their best efforts, cannot quite keep up with the steady-growing problem of river trash.

The Bend Parks and Recreation District (BPRD) covers a 2,600-acre area that hugs Shelvin Regional Park, Cooley Road, Hamby Road, and Knott Road, and that is a lot of land to cover. Mike Duarte is the Landscape Manager for the BPRD. His job includes going out daily and physically maintaining the refuse. His jurisdiction covers 175 acres not including the trails, and based on 10 years of experience in the role, he says that while litter along the river is an affliction, it is not a new one. "The issue ebbs and tides. It is mostly a seasonal issue and when the hot weather rises, so does the amount of trash."

There are many volunteer organizations that contribute to the cleanup that are heavily relied on by the BPRD. Some of the organizations have either adopted parts of the river or just go out to maintain the lands when they can. Some of the groups include, but are not limited to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, the Lava City Roller Dolls, Paulina Creek Construction, and REI of Bend.

REI Bend has adopted a portion of the Deschutes River that runs through the Old Mill District, an area that does not fall under the BPRD jurisdiction. This is a company familiar to most of Bendites primarily for its shared policies on the love of nature and an active outdoor lifestyle.

Aaron Henderson is the REI Outreach Coordinator and shares his experience with a program called Community Stewards. These volunteers (all associated with REI) look after the rivers year-round to ensure the litter stays manageable. Henderson offers insight as to why trash is becoming such a prevalent problem: "I think a certain amount of trash just gets away from people, and it is an honest accident. Others are lazy, or may not feel they have responsibility for the area they are recreating in."

As far as REI's connection with the district, Henderson says that they did have to engage with the BPRD during the adoption process. However, he has no recollection of any involvement after the fact. The portion adopted by the business means fewer acres for the district to tidy.

Julie Brown, the new communications director for the BPRD acknowledges that the issue of trash being left behind falls under the District's jurisdiction; however, the department cannot cover it all. "We are disappointed that the early hot weather brought more trash along the river than normal. Trash in the parks is the responsibility of the Bend Park and Recreation District. With that said, we are also concerned about the river, the riverbanks and other areas on private land."

Neighbors Jaik Goff and Sarah Magness both live along the river and are constantly reminded of the trash problem. For the past couple of years, Goff has organized a group of like-minded citizens to fan out and attack the rubbish head on. Magness joins in on the cleanup when she is able. Overall, she says she is disappointed with what she has been seeing wash up on her lawn. "I just find it really sad," she says. "I think the citizens need to step up, but I also think that the City and the Park's Department could do a better job by sending more people out to walk around and pick up the garbage."

Sasha Sulia, superintendent of park operations for BPRD, states that those living on the riverfront are responsible for maintaining the waters outside their property. Goff does that and more, going out on kayak to sweep the garbage up the best he can, as frequently as he can. He also has strong feelings about BPRD and what he calls a "lack of caring." He believes that most of the mess is from the department turning a blind eye to what outsiders are doing to the Deschutes. "It is a free-for-all out there. Parks and Rec are allowing tourists to do whatever they want. They are concerned about the dollars, not our rivers," he says. "They are appeasing people from out of town."

Bend is known for its beautiful parks and interactive waters, so much so that most of the 82,000 residents use these facilities on a daily or weekly basis. This number, however, pales in comparison to the estimated 2.5 to 3 million estimated visitors to Central Oregon in 2015, according to Visit Bend. The money coming in can be a blessing for businesses, but how much of that tax revenue is being spent to maintain the parks that these visitors are frequenting? In the Oregon Travel Impact Report compiled for the Oregon Tourism Commission in May 2016, for every $100 spent by tourists in Central Oregon, about $4.40 of that is local and state tax revenue.

According to the same report, tourists spent $791 million in Central Oregon alone in 2015, contributing to the $10.8 billion spent in the state as a whole. This means that roughly $475 million is being absorbed by local and state taxes.

Both Brown and Duarte mention that to prepare for the influx of summer visitors, BPRD will be hiring two temporary maintenance workers and will be adding an unspecified number of trash receptacles in the parks and along the river.

The true measure of success of this loose cleanup collective will be determined at the end of the summer. In the meantime, Bendites should brace themselves for the annual deluge of river trash.

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