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San Marcos Fights To Protect Its River And Parks From Littering

Elizabeth Parrish
Volunteers from Texas State University pick up trash from a drainage ditch during the Great Texas River Clean Up in March 2017.

As both the tourist and resident populations of San Marcos double, so must efforts to protect it from litter. While individual groups tackle the problem in their own way, everyone comes together for one type of prevention: annual and monthly cleanups.

In 2016, the most recent year for which data are available, volunteers for the annual cleanup collected 261 bags of trash, 63 bags of recycling and 77 tires for a total of 9,050 pounds of waste. Seven hundred volunteers worked four hours each to remove the waste.

The biggest problem? Micro-litter. Amy Kirwin, coordinator for Keep San Marcos Beautiful, defines micro-litter as “the small stuff”: water bottle caps, cigarette butts or plastic straw wrappers.

“We really educate our volunteers on micro-litter,” she said. “It’s stuff that normally wouldn’t be picked up by anybody that is just walking along or even crew members because they pick up the big stuff like water bottles.”

"The river is really the heart of this community. Without it, this town is nothing special."

The Great Texas River Clean Up, which takes place on the first Saturday in March each year, calls upon volunteers to sweep across the river areas, parks and most neighborhoods in San Marcos.

Tom Goynes and his wife started the annual cleanups back in 1972 after they realized people were dumping large quantities of trash in the river.

“In our case, with this river, it’s training the tubers and the people that are recreating on the river to not throw their cans in the river,” he said. “A can ban like in New Braunfels is probably the best route.”

Monthly Hot Spot Cleanups began in 2013 after a member of Keep San Marcos Beautiful realized the annual cleanups weren’t enough. On the first Saturday of each month, volunteers clean up certain areas to prevent litter from building up.

With increases in tourist and resident populations, there has also been an increase in volunteers. Back in 2013, there were 342 volunteers; in 2016, that number rose to 700.

Kirwin said volunteer efforts have been just enough to prevent the rate of littering from increasing since she joined Keep San Marcos Beautiful in 2013. The group’s biggest challenge is preventing people from littering in the first place.

Although San Marcos has a number of city ordinances that ban certain types of containers or objects from the parks, such as glass bottles and cigarettes, tourists often ignore the rules and are given only verbal warnings when caught. Authorities write two tickets per year on average for littering, and that’s usually only when someone repeatedly ignores verbal warnings.

The San Marcos River Foundation, one of the largest volunteer groups for the cleanups, creates events to educate locals and tourists about littering. Dianne Wassenich, the foundation’s program manager, said the river is a lot cleaner than it once was, but protecting it and the rest of the town is an ongoing battle.

“The river is really the heart of this community. Without it, this town is nothing special,” she said. “The river is what makes it attractive to people who want to move here, and it makes the quality of life good for the people that do live here.”

When It Rains ...

For Wassenich, the root of the litter problem is flood prevention and land conservation. When the San Marcos floods, homes and businesses are damaged, and debris is swept into the river.

“When you build in the hills above town and the water runs down to town, you flood town worse and more often and with higher levels and more frequency simply because you’ve developed an area,” she said. “It seems logical to me that you should try to preserve as much land as you can up here to remain vegetated and not built on."

The River Foundation isn’t the only group looking at how floods in San Marcos affect littering. The Environmental Health, Safety and Risk Management Department at Texas State University looks at how storm water runoff affects the environment.

Colleen Cook, an environmental health and safety specialist with Texas State University, said dumping substances or trash into or near storm drains is one of the worst ways the river is polluted.

“When it rains, the water goes into storm drains which flows directly into the river, but people think storm water goes into waste water treatment plants,” she said.

Confetti is one of the common types of micro-litter that ends up in the river. Colleen Cook, an environmental specialist at Texas State University, says fish and other wildlife are at risk of eating the confetti and dying.

Cook said her biggest project right now is educating students on the harm of using confetti during graduation. When students leave confetti behind, it’s washed into the drains, which lead back to the river, endangering wildlife.

“Students just don’t understand they’re hurting the river,” she said.

The environmental department also participates in the city’s annual cleanups, but focuses on neighborhoods where trash can be washed down storm drains and carried back to the river.

Divers Keep Spring Healthy

Every Thursday morning, a group of volunteer divers meets at Spring Lake to clean out harmful vegetation to preserve the lake’s ecosystem.

Launched by the Meadows Center in 1992, the Spring Lake Aquacorps is a program in which divers get to explore the lake in exchange for their “underwater gardening” services. Taylor Heard, volunteer dive coordinator for the Aquacorps, said keeping the lake well-maintained is one of the most critical ways to protect the environment.

“Some of these plants are a known beneficial habitat to our endangered species so if we didn’t keep the rest of this stuff in check, that stuff would actually get choked out by some of the plants that take over,” Heard said.

Divers focus on uprooting harmful native and non-native plants. To prevent overgrowth, the Meadows Center also sends out an aquatic harvester to scoop up excess plants that don’t die off during the winter.

The goal of the program is to keep unwanted vegetation from clogging up the mouth of the spring and taking away oxygen from native species that thrive in the lake.

Pete Brian, a retired biology professor who began volunteering with Aquacorps in 2005, said the spring was overgrown with non-native vegetation before the group began its work.

“If me and other people didn’t do this, it wouldn’t be long before you couldn’t see the springs,” he said. “It would be entirely overgrown.”