Russian River flooding heaps trash onto Sonoma County beaches

The steep trails rising from the north Jenner beach, rendered muddy and slick by recent rains, would be a challenging climb even without the burdens borne Tuesday by coastal stewards Cea Higgins and Richard James.

But time was a factor. The pair needed to move large piles of trash brought downstream by the Russian River off the shore and up to higher ground in anticipation of exceptionally large ocean swells building this week with the latest round of storms.

Empty bottles, spare flip flops, tennis balls, two car tires, thousands of plastic foam bits, as well as fiberglass boat wreckage and four plastic 55-gallon drums were among the eclectic debris deposited just outside the mouth of the Russian River in the wake of recent flooding.

Higgins, volunteer and policy coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation's Sonoma Coast Chapter, with occasional volunteers had been busy for days collecting and bagging as much of the litter as they could, then lugging it to one of four staging areas high up the beach.

But with swells of nearly 30 feet expected late this week, the surf was threatening to drag it all right back into the water. Higgins and James joined forces to haul multiple loads uphill along the foot of the bluffs - James lashing an unlikely array of bulky pieces to his backpack.

“Now it's not going to get washed out, and that was my main goal today,” Higgins said.

Higgins, a Bodega Bay resident, and James, from Inverness, are among a devoted contingent of volunteer environmental stewards who work week in and week out to keep the detritus of humankind out of local waterways, preventing it from washing downstream into the Pacific Ocean.

The duo and other regulars who take part in the cleanup brigade say they've noticed a reduction in plastic bags among the flotsam since a countywide ban went into effect in autumn 2014. Several also said they've seen a difference since a group called the Clean River Alliance set to work more than a year ago clearing tens of thousands of pounds of litter and debris from homeless encampments out of the watershed.

But with the Russian River topping its banks as it did last week - twice - flood debris still littered Sonoma Coast beaches in the aftermath. Higgins, who had worked at several of them over the previous week, said the north Jenner beach so far was the worst.

Mostly that's a function of the current at the mouth, where the still-swollen river empties to the ocean, spewing mud that then swirls northward, depositing some of its content onto a beach known to locals as Driftwood Beach because of the volume of woody debris left there during the wintertime.

The variety includes lost water toys - lots of rubber balls, tennis balls and a punctured inflatable raft - abandoned food and beverage containers, dock parts and backyard junk, including paint cans and six blue plastic drums that still contained some unknown liquid substance.

Then there was the plastic foam, tons of it from egg-sized to tiny shards, apparently from improperly discarded cups, food containers, buoys and ice chests, as well as molded foam pieces that resemble potato chips and may be used in packing.

Higgins, 53, said she wished more consumers would think more about what happens with waste that finds its way into environment, where it's often mistaken for food by wildlife, sometimes with fatal consequences. When those animals die, the pollutant finds its way back into the environment, where it continues doing harm.

It's made Higgins wish foam products were banned outright.

“We can clean up forever, but if we're not doing something about the source of all this stuff, it's futile,” she said.

Still, she and James made a huge dent Tuesday, lugging a dozen or more orange heavy-duty trash bags at least part way up the bluffs, as well as oddly shaped, bulky pieces of debris that James, 54, carefully secured to his backpack before heading down the beach.

“I take a long time to tie the load on because I've learned if you don't, you have to stop and tie it again,” he said.

Higgins said she had been reluctant to mount a larger-scale volunteer effort on the beach because of the already building swell and the muddy, eroded trails that she feared could be damaged by heavy foot traffic.

But she said volunteers for regular beach patrols are needed, especially north of the river mouth. Anyone interested can contact Higgins at

A coalition of stewardship organizations also is scheduled to collaborate on a Feb. 4 beach cleanup on and around Goat Rock State Beach.

More information on Sonoma Coast Beach Stewardship Day is available at

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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