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Despite delays and limitations, volunteers keep the Petaluma River clean

After fewer than two hours walking a section of the Lynch Creek Trail Saturday morning, a group of eight river cleanup volunteers had already hit the jackpot.

Their winnings? Two large black trash bags stuffed to the gills with discarded junk and detritus, culled from brambly river banks along one of the city’s most popular trail systems.

But for Ben Goldberg, that early-morning win was only motivation to keep going.

“We can do better than that!” he yelled, a cloth face mask struggling to stay up through wide grins. “We’re having a blast, playing music and spending the morning helping out, it’s great!”

Goldberg and his coworkers from Simply Solar joined roughly 80 others who devoted their Saturday morning to sweeping the river and its creeks clean of debris during Friends of the Petaluma River’s annual cleanup.

This year’s event, the 15th organized by the nonprofit since its establishment in 2005, was delayed two months by the coronavirus and ensuing public health orders. In normal years, up to 200 community members lend a hand, collecting an average of 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of rubbish and celebrating with a barbecue party.

While there were fewer hands this year, and no after-party, volunteers still managed to extract some sizable trash hauls.

Goldberg said the far-reaching impacts of the virus compelled him to participate, seeing growing needs for volunteers and community assistance as many businesses like his are forced to limit charitable spending.

“Like a lot of businesses right now, we don’t have much money to give,” Goldberg said, Vice President of Sales for the company. “We don’t know if we’ll be in business next year. So instead of money, we can still give our time and our efforts to help out.”

To adhere to social distancing requirements, each of this year’s 11 separate cleanup sites featured no more than 10 volunteers each. Stephanie Bastianon, Executive Director of Friends of the Petaluma River, said they pulled 2,017 pounds of trash from the river and surrounding banks and creeks by Saturday afternoon. Nearly half of that load came from two different locations along the Lynch Creek Trail.

Other trash-heavy spots included the Petaluma Marina and the stretch of river running along Water Street North, Bastianon said.

A few volunteers handed in some interesting items as well, including a bench press, a hand-built mini racing boat, a food dehydrator, eight shopping carts and a stack of fashion design textbooks.

However, the fragile waterways are not completely clear, especially among its tributaries including Lynch, Adobe and San Antonio creeks. Bastianon said the organization will begin to “re-engage” various groups who have adopted sections of these creeks to hopefully boost cleanup participation.

Along with organizing the annual cleanup, Friends of the Petaluma River manages Steamer Landing Park and the David Yearsley River Heritage Center. They support programs that promote education and river conservation in schools and among youth groups.

Several of Saturday’s trash pickers said the event was their first volunteer experience in months, while others remarked the socially-distanced outing was their first time working with Friends of the Petaluma River.

Gail Cramer, a Petaluma resident for 44 years, recalled how different the river looked several decades ago when dredging occurred regularly and the tips of gliding sailboats could be seen from downtown streets.

As she pinched cigarette butts from the pavement near the Petaluma Yacht Club, she said she hopes the planned dredging this summer – the first in 17 years – will be a real source of river revitalization.

In a debrief to City Council last week, Director of Public Works Jason Beatty said the Army Corps of Engineers is moving forward with the project that will clear the built-up sediment choking the Petaluma River, expecting work to begin by late August.

In the meantime, Friends of the Petaluma River will continue to focus on improving water quality – its next cleanup is scheduled for Sept. 19, coinciding with California Coastal Cleanup Day.

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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