Dealing with river trash
Animas River littered with remains of a busy summer

SideStory: River cleanup set for Sept. 13

The remains of yet another epic ride through Smelter decorate the shores of the Animas River near the Santa Rita bridge this week. With river traffic at an all-time high, the river has taken a beating this summer, with the trash to prove it./Photo by David Halterman

by Missy Votel

Summer flows on the Animas have receded, but the trashed remains from one of the busiest river seasons in memory have hit an all-time high. At least that’s the feeling among several local river users who say unprecedented recreational use of the river this summer has taken its toll, and they are asking the city to step in.

“This was the busiest year I can remember in terms of boaters, and more importantly, tubers,” said Ty Churchwell, president of the Five Rivers Branch of Trout Unlimited. “And the trash along the river shows it.”

A member of the city’s Animas River Task Force, an advisory committee to the Durango City Council, Churchwell and other members of the Task Force met with the city this week to discuss options for alleviating the trash problem, most notably beer cans, bottles, orphaned flip flips, Styrofoam coolers, and popped tubes and other miscellaneous discarded river craft

“It’s on the minds of everyone on the task force, and we want to ask the city about what can be done,” he said.

Churchwell said while the trash does not necessarily pose an immediate threat to the fishery, it does pose a threat to another of the town’s economic engines: tourism. “It’s 95 percent visual,” he said. “It’s an aesthetic that bodes poorly for this community as far as tourists are concerned. We are a tourist-based economy, and if our rivers are trashed, what does that say?”

Among the ideas Churchwell hopes to float is enforcement at the 32nd Street put-in to police open containers and littering. “I don’t want to be a stick in the mud, but there are basic rules that need to be followed,” he said. “We all know who we’re talking about: that person, with flip flops in one hand, a beer in the other, no lifevest and a six-pack between their legs. If they tip over, which they will, all this becomes the stuff we clean up.”

Churchwell said the recent trash influx is especially disappointing given the hard work of the Animas River Stakeholders group to reduce metal loads upstream of Durango. “They’re doing a world class job up there and winning national awards and keeping it from becoming a Superfund site,” he said. “The river keeps getting better and better, and we’re blowing it down here.”

Fellow Task Force member Aaron Kimple, of the Animas Riverkeepers, agreed that trash seems to be at an all-time high this year. Whether it is the result of an extended river season or an increase of users, or a combo, he said it is disheartening to see. “It is disappointing that a portion of the users of, and visitors to, the river don’t think to take care of a resource that is enjoyed by the entire community,” he said.

As far as city involvement goes, Kimple said ultimate responsibility lies with river users. To that end, he said there is a need for adequate trash receptacles and recycling bins at put-ins and take-outs and that signage would also be helpful. “We should take every opportunity to educate users about caring for the river,” he said.

Rory James, owner of commercial outfitter Southwest Whitewater, said there is no question that traffic along the river was up this summer. “Our business was up 10 percent over last year,” he said, saying that his company averaged 20-25 trips a day through the month of August.

However, increased traffic – private and commercial – also led to increased headaches at the city’s put-ins and take-outs. He said he and other outfitters would like to see separate put-ins for the two user groups in order to alleviate traffic jams and escalating tensions.

“On a busy day at 32nd street, to get a packed school but in there is nearly impossible,” he said. “Sometime, there’s just one lone, private boater wanting to put on with a group of eight commercial boats clogging the put-in, or vice versa.”

He said a designated commercial-only boat launch, possibly across the river, would help ease the tensions, free up parking and give the 32nd Street neighbors a break from the constant ruckus. “I think everyone would be happy,” he said. “Going on the river is not supposed to be a stressful, mean experience.”

As far as the trash situation goes, James, who has lived for 12 years in Durango, fears it is headed down the road of his native Front Range. “It’s disgusting this year, I really feel Durango’s gone downhill,” he said. “I feel like I take more pictures of beer cans than people in the eddies.”

He said he would also like to see more trash and recycling receptacles as well as a permanent solution to the “Green Monster” – the lone and well-used porta-potty at the 32nd Street put-in. “We joke to our customers that going in there is a self-guided trip,” he said.

For the rafting companies’ part, most have a strict no flip-flip rule, requiring customers to wear either strapped sandals, tennis shoes or booties provided by the rafting company. “It’s amazing how many times I hear, ‘I don’t care if I lose these,’ from people wearing flip flops or how often I’ll see an inner tube popping,” James said. “Well I care because they become litter.”

Andy Corra, owner of Four Corners River Sports, said he is working on remedying this situation since it’s obvious that tubing and other forms of small-vessel personal flotation are not likely to go away anytime soon. “There’s no doubt that the tuber hottie slalom has gotten big,” he quipped. “The river itself was a lot busier this year. People have discovered it’s the place to go when it’s hot.”

For the past few years, Corra has sold an upgraded tube made by Northwest River Supply that costs around $85. “We order about 50 every year and sell them until they’re gone,” he said.

For next year, Four Corners is working on its own version of a tough tube, which will withstand multiple uses and not end up as a strainer or flotsam. “I see a lot of pool inflatables that don’t make it that far and become part of the trash problem,” he said. “The river’s a little hard on pool toys.”

As for the occasional on-river beverage, Corra said there were plans for a carnage-proof cooler tube and secure beverage holders on the tubes as well.

For Churchwell, that’s a step in the right direction.

“There’s nothing wrong with tubing,” he said. “We all love the river and love to get out there. We’re just asking people to be more responsible.” •

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