California has a large number of unsheltered individuals, and that number has likely increased due to the effects of the Covid 19 Pandemic. Homeless individuals can cause negative impacts to local watersheds because they lack access to proper sanitation and disposal services, which can lead to their waste ending up in local waterways. In rural counties like Amador and Calaveras there are very few resources for unhoused people compared to urban areas. The Watershed Protection Alliance (WPA) was founded by the Foothill Conservancy in 2020 in an effort to preserve the health of our local watersheds by preventing waste from impacting our waterways. We do this mainly by building relationships with the community and unhoused individuals, organizing cleanups on local waterways, mapping and studying the impacts of homeless encampments on waterways, and providing disposal resources to some of the occupied encampments.
We have partnered with ACES Waste Services, which provides us with dumpsters and charges the Foothill Conservancy only for the tonnage of trash we collect during the cleanups. Sierra Wind Wellness and Recovery Center also supports the Watershed Protection Alliance by communicating with our unsheltered volunteers and facilitating new relationships with unsheltered individuals. “To date, the WPA has removed over 16.5 tons of waste from local watersheds, and engaged over 50 volunteers. The program is working to remove trash from waterways, and is working towards prevention and providing solutions to keep waterways clean without repeated cleanups,” said Megan Fiske, executive director of Foothill Conservancy.
The WPA has been funded by the generosity of our community members who donated both time and money, and by the many businesses that made contributions of supplies for our cleanups. Without the help and support of our volunteers, the WPA would not have been able to remove and prevent over 16.5 tons of waste from entering into our waterways. During a recent cleanup, two volunteers who were in recovery and had experienced homelessness said that was one of their best days ever and were so happy to give back. They were thankful that people cared about the living conditions of the unhoused and they look forward to the next cleanup.
The main goal of the Watershed Protection Alliance is to to keep litter and waste out of our creeks and waterways. The purpose of this goal is to improve the health of our community and the environment around us. We currently map and study the impacts of waste generated from homeless encampments on waterways in Amador and Calaveras counties and communicate with the City of Jackson and other organizations who provide resources to unhoused individuals. Aside from our encampment cleanups, we have a goal to distribute hygiene and sanitation products and promote proper disposal practices in an effort to reduce the waste that enters our waterways.
The Watershed Protection Alliance improves the health of the community by providing unhoused individuals with resources and advocating on their behalf. Our cleanups also provide people a way to connect and give back to their community. There are many ways that the Watershed Protection Alliance can help improve the health of the environment as well. Every piece of plastic or other litter that we remove from the environment improves the aquatic habitat for macroinvertebrates, and helps reduce the quantity of generalist predators who are drawn in by litter and subsequently harm or destroy native wildlife like nesting birds and frogs.
As we enter our second year of cleanups, we are aiming to do a better job documenting the impacts of our efforts through photo monitoring. We also plan to explore other monitoring options that provide opportunities for the community to engage in stewarding our watersheds while learning more about them. Hopefully, we can help the community understand that our efforts are about more than protecting water quality from assumed human impacts associated with encampments — old leaky septic systems, road runoff and more can impact the water quality in creeks in ways that would be nearly impossible to differentiate from an encampment’s impacts. The level of contamination in the soil and the water cannot be attributed to one source, and quantifying the level of contamination would not change our desire to protect our waterways from the impacts of litter.
We are always looking for more volunteers and partners to help us expand our goals in the coming years. If you would like to volunteer at one of our cleanups and/or sign up for email alerts please go to our website for more information.
Watershed Conservation and Land-Use Advocate