I’ve noticed a lot more trash recently along Lake Dillon. Do you have any idea why there seems to be more garbage there than in other places around the county?
— Emma in Silverthorne
“Flash floods for the High Rockies are expected for the next two days,” announces KSMT.
The Summit County forecast in the Summit Daily newspaper reads “Scattered thunderstorms, thunderstorms likely, isolated thunderstorms, partly cloudy …” for the coming days.
What’s with all the rain? Seriously! I know we need it, but it’s put a bit of a strain on my fun outdoor activities. My sister and I rented a pontoon boat last weekend, and it turned out to be a combination of monsoon, mist and rainbows. This rain is washing my dog walks completely off the calendar, and that’s a problem when one of the dogs is a young, high-energy Great Dane.
When it’s not raining, two of my favorite places to walk the dogs are the shoreline near the Frisco Marina and the path along the Blue River in Silverthorne. While my dogs and I are out walking, we take turns finding treasure. I find scenic areas to photograph, and my dogs sniff along for toys — aka pieces of garbage. The Great Dane, Wray Charles, likes to find the water bottles because they make crunching sounds when he chews on them. The old shaggy dog, Calahan, likes to find dead animals and chicken bones to play with. While I appreciate their resourcefulness at entertaining themselves, I get annoyed by trash showing up in the foreground of my photographs … so I carry a plastic bag and pick up the garbage whenever I find it. By the time the dogs and I are ready to go home, you’ll usually find me carrying two wet leashes and one bag full of trash back to my car.
Where does all of this garbage come from? Snow? Bears? My dogs might think that garbage comes from very generous people who deliberately share their leftovers. The reality is that garbage comes from all sorts of places, and frequently ends up along the river banks due to a phenomenon called surface water runoff (or more dramatically referred to as stormwater runoff), and is likely to happen this week if we get flash flooding.
Typically as the spring snow melts and summer rain falls, only a portion of the water will soak into the ground (particularly near lowlands and marshes where willows and grassy clumps live), but the rest of the water will continue to flow downhill, picking up loose garbage, dirt and debris, and even lawn fertilizers and chemicals. This runoff will wash across our yards, parks and parking lots, and spill into the streams.
Eventually the untreated water and choice bits of interesting garbage will come to rest along a shoreline in Dillon or Frisco, where my dogs will sniff out fascinating items for chew toys. If I get lucky, the doggie ‘garbage toys’ won’t be covered in mud or smell like rotten eggs. If luck favors the dogs, they will find extra water bottles, socks and soggy leftovers from a barbecue. Either way, the surface runoff of water will bring some sort of adventure to them, and an opportunity for me to fill another trash bag.
The best way to prevent the movement of garbage downstream is to manage it correctly and timely. “Waste isn’t waste, until it’s wasted,” is a great phrase to keep in mind. This basically means that a plastic water bottle is a useful beverage container until it is empty and discarded. At this point, the plastic vessel magically becomes a recyclable item, a fun toy to my dog, and a clear disappointment to anyone who has to pick it up from the shore of a lake months after a heavy rain.
To reduce the amount trash that is moved from one point to another via flash floods and surface runoff, we should all be more proactive. Take out the household recycling before the bins are overflowing; get rid of super smelly garbage before a bear or raccoon can find it; and make sure home improvement projects and construction sites have well-positioned and effective erosion barriers.
Since we can’t easily control the rain or flash flooding, we can at least try to reduce the impact of trash appearing along our scenic trails and shorelines. Once we all practice better preparation methods for managing surface water runoff, we will have less garbage migrating towards our drinking water sources. My dogs will have to go back to playing with sticks and splashing in puddles, and instead of filling a bag with trash every other day, I’ll just carry a pair of wet leashes … but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at email@example.com.