Russian River cleanup targets flood debris

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Two homeless men struggled to drag a tarp carrying two bags of trash up a muddy trail from their campsite on the Russian River near Guerneville Saturday morning.

“Got heavy for a second,” Kenneth Avery Goodman said as they rested briefly, several feet below the edge of Neeley Road.

“This is killing my back,” Shawn Whiting said.

“There’s so much stuff down there,” Goodman said moments later, surveying the encampment he and Whiting share with two others.

The four homeless people joined 30 volunteers — including West County Supervisor Efren Carrillo and two Windsor kids — collecting trash in a post-flood cleanup along the murky river from Guerneville to Monte Rio, jointly sponsored by Russian Riverkeeper and Russian River Watershed Cleanup, a pair of nonprofit conservation groups.

The effort was hastily organized in the wake of the Dec. 11 storm, which pumped the river up to 33.4 feet at Guerneville, just over the 32-foot flood stage. Damage was estimated at $8.8 million, largely to roads and bridges, but relatively minor compared with the $100 million flood toll in 1986.

But it left such a mess along the river that Saturday’s effort netted nearly 6 tons of refuse, including 39 tires and an array of cast-offs, such as fencing, TVs and VCRs as well as spoils from homeless encampments.

Bob Legge, Riverkeeper’s policy and outreach coordinator, surmised that many of the larger refuse items had been tossed by local residents over the edge of the riverbank.

Bob Wallace, a volunteer from Windsor, was undeterred by the mess.

“Look at how beautiful this rivershed is,” he said. “I think participation in your community is what makes your community a wonderful place.”

Wallace, who said he has lived in Mexico, Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan and Oregon, called Sonoma County “the best place I’ve been.”

Carrillo, Legge and Wallace plucked trash from the mud and brush down a steep embankment off Neeley Road just beyond the river’s first bend below the Highway 116 bridge in Guerneville.

Much of it was wet, filthy bedding, tents, clothing and other items, such as cans and bottles, either left over from a homeless campsite there or swept by the river from an upstream site. Plastic bags were caught in tree branches 15 feet off the ground.

“It gives us a challenge to get the stuff out of here,” Legge said.

Carrillo, wearing dirt-stained jeans and a blue hooded sweatshirt, said the cleanup was “a perfect way to start the year.”

Later, Nina van Hoorn, 11, and her brother, Rik, 13, of Windsor helped haul refuse up to the road. They volunteered to fulfill their community service obligation at The Healdsburg School.

“It’s pretty sad,” said Nina, who recovered a giant tarp from a homeless camp on the other side of the river.

“They move on and leave all their stuff,” Rik said.

Rik said he wished he could rig a net across the river surface to snag floating debris, but realized it was impractical.

About a mile farther down Neeley Road, Kenneth Goodman acknowledged that many homeless campers “leave a mess; they don’t care about Mother Nature.”

But he and his three fellow campers “love the area,” a longtime homeless encampment across the river from popular Dubrava Beach, Goodman said.

The volunteers had already hauled 40 sacks of trash from the encampment, where Goodman and his fellow campers still had their tents pitched.

The night of the flood, Goodman said he awoke to find his tent nearly filled with water. He crawled out into 9 feet of floodwater and had to swim to safety, he said.

“I almost drowned on my birthday,” said Goodman, who turned 53 that day.

Nicoli Lisiukoff, a gray-haired man with a matching beard who said he has lived at the site for four years, also had to escape the rising water. All of their camping equipment and possessions “floated down the river,” he said.

A man who gave his name as Bill, a 63-year-old retired San Francisco plumbing contractor wearing dark blue coveralls, helped load bags of refuse into a Toyota Tacoma pickup.

“I’m the guy that finds the stuff,” said Bill, who kayaks the river every day, spotting trash and reporting it to the Riverkeeper organization.

“I love this place,” he said. “I hate to see all this going on.”

Three steel debris boxes provided by Redwood Empire Disposal were stationed at Russian Riverkeeper Stewardship Park in Guerneville and at the Monte Rio Beach parking lot. Volunteers brought dozens of pickup truck loads of trash to the boxes, which were emptied at Sonoma County’s Guerneville Refuse Transfer Station.

Riverkeeper has a second cleanup day scheduled for 9 a.m. to noon Saturday in Jenner, where masses of refuse have mixed with driftwood, Legge said. More information is available at the organization’s website, russianriverkeeper.com.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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