As a kayaker, Bruce Cohn has a tentative relationship with the homeless who camp along the banks of the Petaluma River.
“Oh, yeah, they all know me,” the Petaluma resident joked recently while walking along the river's northern reach near the Petaluma Village Premium Outlets, pointing out trashy areas.
Cohn has been trying — without luck so far — to bring attention to the litter and environmental damage created by the homeless along the far stretches of the river, places most people don't venture into.
During his frequent paddling trips up the river, Cohn collects as much trash as he can. But much of it he can't reach from his perch in his kayak. He said he pulls out 25 pounds of trash three or four times a week.
For all of his love for the river, he said it disgusts him to see the degradation of the serene beauty and natural habitat that is protected from most people by its very geography.
“It's just nasty. I fished a fire extinguisher out the other day,” he said. “There are three sleeping bags in trees. There's a baby carriage, a newsstand, a car door."
Cohn said he is worried some of the debris will flow out with the tide, further contaminating the slough that winds toward San Pablo Bay.
His calls to law enforcement got bounced around to different jurisdictions. His efforts to alert river groups in Petaluma were rebuffed, he said, his photos of the trash removed from their web pages.
“I understand they need a place to live,” Cohn said. “But if it's free, at least clean it up.”
Most of the cans, plastic bags, empty food containers, sleeping bags and other flotsam the homeless leave on the banks and in the river gets swept toward the bay, gets snagged on vegetation or rots away on the banks.
The camps can be an environmental nightmare, said Petaluma Police Lt. Tim Lyons. Often the homeless bathe in the river or use it as a toilet. Their trash can contain any number of contaminants or harmful fluids.