California Drought Exposes Issues with Canals and Trash: Why Should We Care?

May 3, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Fancher Creek is a popular trail but prone to litter and graffiti (photo by

Changing canal environs due to drought 

Fresno, CA — At this time of year in the past, Central Valley canals are normally flowing full. In spring, it is the scene of a thriving ecosystem with ducks nesting and toads spawning in clear, gently flowing streams.

However this year things are different. As of last year, the canal districts have had to decrease water allotments due to drought. As of late March, there was little to no water flowing in canals. Some canal-creek systems, such as Fancher Creek are doubling as emergency sanctuaries, attracting large white cranes and egrets that normally hang around the State Water Projects.

Low levels in Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District detention ponds are also transforming these basins into common watering holes for a variety of small to large migrating birds, something that places them visibly at risk of surface water pollution.

Surface pollution includes weed-killer (used extensively along canal-creek embankments supposedly as a low-cost solution for controlling weed growth), floating plastic debris, and litter of many varieties.

When open water is left standing too long, eutrophying algae also grows. Slippery duckweed provides healthy feeding to some bird species; however, insects like mosquitos too often provoke anti-ecological human responses. Pesticides collect in the water and can react with other debris to form toxic pollutants or carcinogens.

One thing is for certain: trying to identify and pin down responsibility on litter in canals and canal-creek systems is most assuredly difficult. Even the reasons for this are complex. Water, long considered part of the commons, has a history of underregulation.

If there were fair and equitable use and distribution, such as in the wilds with natural streams and ponds, no one would balk at the underregulation. In California’s early days[1], Washo Indians survived on green belts along the Carson and Walker Rivers in the Eastern Sierras, sharing sinks with animals large and small; in the summer, they would move up to Tahoe, where they led an idyllic life fishing, gathering plants, and hunting small game. Living according to the fruits of the season, there was enough for all creatures, while the environment remained in delicate balance for centuries.

Competition among mining companies, logging companies, generations of ranchers, food growers and manufacturers, and most recently bottled water companies, along with dynamic population growth has led to intense water competition. Last year, for the first time in its history, the State Legislature passed a bill that will mandate green technology mapping and regulation of groundwater.[2]

With the United States undergoing a hydrofracking and natural gas boom, it is doubtful that it will include stricter mandates surface water quality.[3] However this is what is needed to ensure that all surface water conveyance systems are better protected.

Litter and illegal dumping in surface waters is illegal. According to the California Penal Code Title 10, Section 374.7, a crime against public health and safety is committed if:

"A person who litters or causes to be littered, or dumps or causes to be dumped, waste matter into a bay, lagoon, channel, river, creek, slough, canal, lake, or reservoir, or other stream or body of water, or upon a bank, beach, or shore within 150 feet of the high water mark of a stream or body of water."

The pity is that it is only categorized as a misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $1000 upon the first conviction.[4]

What is more, authorities these days don’t seem to be handing out littering tickets. It might be a good thing: often the litterbugs are passersby unrelated to the property owners whose property abuts the canal embankment. A member of the Fresno City Police Department Graffiti Team told this reporter that it would be like a double whammy if the innocent owner is forced to pay a penalty and also clean it up.

Need for local environmental movement

Local community education plays a vital role in galvanizing the public. An example is the Potomac Watershed surrounding Washington, D.C.  What began as individual efforts to protect the Potomac River as a safe resource for boating, recreation, fishing, and historic preservation gradually became a regional environmental movement.

The Alice Ferguson Foundation started as an educational center and conservancy providing community programs connecting people with the natural world (much like today’s San Joaquin River Parkway in the Central Valley). However in 2005, it took watershed stewardship to a whole new level with the Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative. The initiative supported the setup of a green technology organizational network to locate, volunteer, sponsor, or lead trash cleanup events and workshops.

In 1999, there were less than 100 Watershed cleanup events. Today there are dozens of events or projects each month. Over 150,000 participants are involved and they include young to old, and people of all races and socioeconomic levels. By 2011, many schools participated in litter prevention campaigns, and the Trash Free School Project began to help reduce school waste while encouraging re-use and recycling. 

Neighboring counties, such as Prince George’s County Government enroll schools and residents in subscriber lists for upcoming environmental activities. The Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light (GWIPL) is a charismatic outgrowth that helps congregations learn to "save energy, go green, and respond to climate change." In 2014, GWIPL even led a contingent to the New York City People’s Climate March.

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Litter is a problem whether or not canal is flowing as shown here (photo by

Mobilizing the Valley for Greenup Cleanup

Frequently the impetus for movement and change stems from personal need. For instance, Branch Avenue Litter Patrol began when this reporter noticed the abnormal number of bottles tossed in ditches near the Metro station. We signed up with the Trash Free Potomac and with a little guidance from Green Hands USA, led several clean-up events. More important than the loads of trash picked, participation by a number of area residents ensured that this area will no longer be overlooked–a win-win for everyone.

A couple months ago this same reporter encountered a box of half-used Raid cans, herbicide boxes and bottles, and other pesticides parked along Fancher Creek in Fresno, CA. Over the next week, we began a self-initiated cleanup, and filled several large bags worth of plastic bottles, clothing, and other small junk. Later, District maintenance used herbicide spray on the canal embankment to control weeds; something quite extraordinary considering that manual labor here is so cheap.

We had made a call to the appropriate authority but there was no call back. With great effort, we were able to locate a few more resources for reporting illegal dumping. Two non-governmental agencies run free litter reporting websites:, and Caltrans had taken down its littering website: Don’t Trash California.

The City of Fresno Development and Resource Management does have a Community Revitalization/Code Enforcement Division with a webpage of ideas for dealing with issues, ways to improve one’s neighborhood, and for reporting code violations. And the Police Department supports crime and neighborhood watch using green technology.

However, the impetus for a Trash Free Central Valley is largely missing from the public conversation. Trash-picking is associated with poor people picking out glass, aluminum, or plastic bottles for recycling since California’s Bottle Bill pays five to ten cents.

Last night, this reporter watched a couple scavengers riffle through a couple dumpsters throwing garbage bags out the bin in order to retrieve recyclables. It seems counter to the interest of the public when scavengers scatter litter for the sake of a couple bottles, yet this is because no one pays attention to using only the blue dumpster for recycling.

As observed earlier, businesses routinely underestimate the number and size of bins needed because they want to economize on costs. As a result it is not at all uncommon to see trash overflowing from all bins and scattered in roads and along canals.  Illegal dumping occurs when people treat the canals as if they were additional dumpsters.

Outside of a few attractive webpages and brochures, there is little dialogue about green or zero-waste community education. It’s mostly missing in classrooms, in local television programming, in other media, or on roadside billboards.

Thus, the term "litter patrol" sounds foreign. It evokes surprise, as if trash is not a polite subject. There are no area Valley groups focusing on community beautification and litter clean-up. Litter clean-up is not an activity in which the middle class, young or old, rich or poor, and people of all races engage in publicly.

We are told to just use common-sense approaches with regard to picking up litter. Signs on canals merely warn about the dangers of falling in, not about littering. In fact, often the water is presumed to help decompose or carry litter away further downstream.

As it is, large rubbish and litter remains associated with homelessness and scavenging because information confined to websites, ads, or telephone book sections do little to instill understanding or to widen broadbased grassroots community support. Deeper understandings are fostered when conferences such as a Trash Summit can be held.

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Man viewing duck near mud puddle underneath Herndon Canal crossing (photo by

Reconciling canals with the environment

Taiwan, a tiny island east of the People’s Republic of China, attracts visitors near and far. Furthermore, it lives up to its reputation as an exotic beauty. In "Going Green Taiwanese Style" at Asian American Forum, travel-writer Christine Kroll wrote:

"[T]his island-nation’s pro-active environmental intervention earned it 29th place among 132 nations for the World Economic Forum’s 2012 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), ahead of Canada (37th), South Korea (43rd), Australia (48th), the US (49th), Singapore (52nd) and China (116th)."

If it’s true that part of our enchantment with the wilderness is its pristine beauty, including waterfalls and mountains, then why wouldn’t we extend this appreciation to natural or man-made water channels running through Californian cities?

Whether it’s Taiwan, Venice, or San Antonio, canals and river esplanades enhance the urban surroundings lending it a microclimate friendly for businesses, tourists, and sports enthusiasts. Smaller Californian cities, such as Stockton encourage stream and canal cleanup. Considerations for a bike commuting plan in the Fresno area include development along the Mill Creek canal which would encourage cross-town commutes.

While it’s tempting to let things grind to a halt due to the drought, it’s counterintuitive to progressive long-term engagement with the community. Rolling forward, one can envision all kinds of green technology opportunities part and parcel with improving the canal system and related community projects that will help stimulate the body and soul.

Volunteers with local groups such as the Boys and Girls Club could learn to organize and help beautify along the canals. Corps interns, college students, and others can earn credit or stipends from working with the irrigation districts in dealing with it’s endless maintenance/inspection needs. Community service workers and other adult volunteers can participate in routine trash-free canal events that would foster pride of place.

In comparison, the present model of operations is restricted to for-profit approaches. The public is advised to use their common-sense when in the proximity of canals, whether they are strolling, bicycling, or otherwise accessing the embankments. It is already evident that the capitalist model of canal maintenance will never pay or motivate anyone to clean up trash sufficiently without community leadership.

The presence of a grey area in administration by the City, County, Districts, State, etc., makes it prone to abuses such as trash disposal, illegal dumping, water theft, gang fights, and midnight graffiti parties. Is it any wonder that there are links between poor health and a polluted environment? We become what we eat, drink, breathe, dispose of, and have contact with whether directly or indirectly, then suffer the consequences.

Government officials, often eager to paper over problems, are generally not the ones willing to initiate change. Change must come from those willing to recognize that private wells and holding ponds are contaminated by surface water pollution whether from illegal dumping, accumulated litter, or even seepage from contaminated aquifers.

In Environmental Debt, Greenpeace Solutions Director Amy Larkin emphasized how Nature is increasingly holding us accountable for the environment. Only by recognizing externalities and being willing to mitigate for them will humanity outlive Nature.

If Californians can reconcile with their canals in the direction of environmental stewardship and collective responsibility, they can take the motto of "a culture of excellence where people get the best every day" to a whole new experiential level.


1. Verna R. Johnston, Sierra Nevada: The Naturalist’s Companion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

2. California Department of Water Resources. "Groundwater Information Center."

3. Dan Bacher. "Water for fracking: How much does the oil/gas industry use?"

4. "Title 10. of Crimes Against the Public Health and Safety – California Penal Code Section 374.7."

Thanks to various others for information or support in this investigation. Visit to learn more.

Christine H. Wong

Christine H. Wong is the founder of

Tags: California drought, water quality