One Man’s Quest to Keep Redwood Creek Clean

in Community/Featured/Headline

Upon arriving at Docktown 18 years ago, David McCallum was shocked by the amount of trash he found floating along and up the banks of Redwood Creek. “It cascaded down the banks like a waterfall. There was so much garbage that ducks wouldn’t get their knees wet when walking on it,” McCallum remembers. So, as a lifelong steward of the environment, he enlisted some of his Docktown friends to help clean it up. By the time they had finished, eight tons of refuse had been fished out of the creek.

McCallum grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and he and his whole family enjoyed hiking and camping. They loved spending summers camping in national parks all over the United States.  His father operated by one basic rule: leave the environment cleaner than you found it.

“When we broke camp, we went out and picked up trash in and around our camp,” McCallum recalls.  “It was disturbing to see how much of other people’s garbage we collected.”  The experience left such an impression that he became an unofficial garbage collector wherever he lived — which tended to be by the water. While he was living in St. Croix in the American Virgin Islands, hurricane Hugo came rumbling through and left in its wake mountains of debris. McCallum helped clean it up. When the locals would hold a celebration on the beach, he’d return the next day to clean up.

“The lack of concern for the environment by the locals was appalling,” he says. “It was a Third World culture and these people would leave every bit of trash they had on those pristine beaches. It just wasn’t on their minds to clean up after themselves.”

Returning to the U.S., McCullum found himself in Redwood City and discovered the  small floating community called Docktown. He built a two-story houseboat and bought a secondhand skiff which he christened “Tidely-Idley.” His first ride up Redwood Creek was an eye-opener: “There was a piece of garbage every square foot, from the water to all the way up the embankment.”

McCallum decided to investigate. His first stop was Creekside Plaza, which backs up to Redwood Creek. When he asked about the garbage in the creek he says he was told “it’s not our garbage. It comes from up stream.” Though there was some truth to that, he suggested putting in some garbage cans but was told that would attract more. Ultimately, though, they did.

McCallum then went to the city’s Pride and Beautification Committee. “By this time I’m a little upset,” he admits. “I asked, ‘What about all this garbage in the creek?’”

Then-Mayor Diane Howard, who has led the committee for 25 years, pointed out that garbage flows from many sources and it’s impossible to recover it all. The committee was doing something about it but its efforts were not concentrated in a single area.

Now there are two annual cleanup days in Redwood City, one on Earth Day and the other is Coastal Cleanup Day. Three or four sites along the water are selected, and  McCallum has been a crew captain every year.

So when it came to Redwood Creek, McCallum enlisted his Docktown friends and proceeded to do what he knew best: collect the garbage, averaging six tons per year for the first eight years.  The haul has included some amazing items. Automobile engines. Bicycles. A motorcycle and a 20-foot-wide plastic swimming pool. The volume of trash that ends up in the creek has been reduced by the ban on plastic bags, according to McCallum, and the clean-up crews typically collect a mere three tons per year.

Not one to let up, McCallum came up with the idea to construct a trash boom that could gather the garbage as it floated downstream and proposed it to the city. Then-Councilman Ian Bain brought the idea to Terrence Kyaw of the Public Works Department. Kyaw understood the concept of installing a such a device upstream near the Bradford storm water pump station or near Veterans Boulevard. But when Kyaw passed the idea on to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, agency officials voiced concern that fish and other wildlife would be trapped in the net and die.

In addition, Kyaw recognized that a net could trap unpredictably large items in the storm drainage system, which could lead to flooding.  Instead, smaller trash-capture devices have been installed in storm drain inlets throughout the city. More than 500 are in place, with more scheduled. These, along with regular street sweeping, help minimize the amount of trash ending up in the waterways. However, no one can keep up with the tonnage of garbage that keeps being thrown or swept into outlets like Redwood Creek.

Eight years ago, McCallum and his wife, Judi, had an idea to raise awareness by inviting the Redwood City community to help out and established an event called “Romancing the Creek.”

“We scheduled it around Valentine’s Day,” Judi notes, “basically saying, ‘If you love your creek, help clean it up.’”

According to McCallum, over 120 volunteers showed up for their first effort and in two hours fished out almost 4,000 pounds of garbage, much of it metal. This year some 80 volunteers collected 2,300 pounds of trash. Most of that was plastic.

Redwood Creek isn’t the only one that McCallum has tried to clean up. Working all over the Bay Area as a self-employed welding equipment maintenance and repair man, McCallum would continue to take his skiff on garbage-collecting rounds whenever he had the energy and time.

Collection requires two people: one to operate the boat and the other to pull in garbage. “I have twisted arms so often it came to the point that my friends at Docktown would run the other way when they saw me coming,” he says with a laugh. “But after the rains especially, the garbage keeps coming. It’s relentless, and frankly, it has worn me out,” he adds more seriously.  With the impending closure of Docktown, the McCallums recently relocated to Fremont – but that won’t stop him in his mission to keep Bay Area waterways clean.

Why should anyone even care about collecting the garbage that so many want to disown?

One might be lulled into thinking Redwood Creek is an isolated issue. Floating trash flowing from Redwood Creek and other outlets finds its way to the Pacific Ocean and contributes to the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”

The name conjures images of a floating landfill in the middle of the ocean, with miles of bobbing plastic bottles and other miscellaneous synthetic household items. But it is only one of many such “patches,” and is very large (think the size of Texas). The patch consists of microplastics, small bits of plastic; broken down bits of garbage that become suspended throughout the water column, trapped within a swirling current.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program’s Carey Morishige says, “A comparison I like to use is that the debris is more like flecks of pepper floating throughout a bowl of soup, rather than a skim of fat that accumulates—or sits—on the surface.”

Morishige is not downplaying the significance of microplastics or their ecological effect. Even though much of the impact on marine life remains unknown, it is acknowledged that the ocean life that ends up on people’s dinner plates is eating this stuff.

Bain, who is now mayor, acknowledges the problem and recognizes McCallum’s efforts, but admits, “We just don’t have a whole lot of resources to throw at Redwood Creek alone. This is a big city to keep clean. Our best bet is to find a group of volunteers to lead the effort Dave McCallum has started.”

“David has made a tremendous impact on Redwood Creek,” says Howard. “He has been the guardian angel of that area.”

How to fill the void left by McCallum? Howard believes it will be tough, but feels education can play a big part. “We need to raise awareness,” she says. “This all starts with everyday people and must be ultimately be controlled by everyday people.”