NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – On a picture-perfect sunny California morning, representatives with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District and the City of Newport Beach hosted a cleanup event Sept. 23 at the Santa Ana River Marsh in Newport Beach.
A total of 54 registered citizens and Corps volunteers participated, removing trash and debris, with security and support accessing the site by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
The cleanup of the 92-acre saltwater marsh area was in recognition of National Public Lands Day.
Corps Park Rangers set up shade with water safety information and a table with Bobber the Water Safety Dog coloring books that proved popular with the youngest volunteers.
Col. Andrew Baker, LA District commander, along with the district park rangers, biologists, division leaders and office workers combed the marsh to remove tons of debris by hand from the ecologically delicate bird nesting area.
Baker said he found several tennis balls – which was unusual, considering there are no nearby tennis courts – as well as ping pong balls and numerous plastic bottle caps.
The Corps and Newport Beach officials were partnering to clear debris and trash from the salt marsh for several reasons, he said.
“The first is pretty obvious, it’s making a difference for our public lands, cleaning them up and being stewards of our environment, where we exist and live,” Baker said. “The second reason is almost a spiritual thing. It’s that sense of service, and this is a way to help our fellow man. For me, that’s a re-energizing kind of thing.”
Baker said he personally appreciated having the opportunity to take part in the cleanup.
“We get really busy in the day-to-day, and, in the Corps, we’re all serving our fellow man, all the time. That’s what we do, that’s what our job is, frankly.”
As Baker filled his bag with trash, he shared his own scouting experience with Boy Scouts Thomas Eng and Patrick Larose, who volunteered with Troop 93, out of Fullerton, Calif.
The scouts said they participated to do their part to assist the Corps.
“If we don’t do it, eventually, it’ll be full of trash,” Larose said. “It kinda’ already is.”
Some volunteers arrived at sunrise to participate, before moving on to other activities.
“This morning, we had folks come in to register early,” said Robert Moreno, LA District senior park ranger. “In fact, some of the people came in and wanted to work immediately, so we registered them, gave them the safety speech and sent them out.”
Picking up trash and pulling weeds was LA District biologist Tiffany Armenta, who put together planning documents that will guide the Corps’ stewardship of the marsh, including an especially sensitive section fenced-off to protect a nesting area from humans and dogs.
After advising volunteers not to uproot any vegetation, she returned to the trash drop off with two full bags of Dittrichia graveolens, or stinkwort, a sticky invasive species that earns its name.
“I pulled out about 90 percent of it,” she said with a laugh. “I love this place. This is one of my favorite Army Corps’ sites. It is super unique to Southern California because there are just not a lot of coastal salt marshes remaining, and we’re lucky to manage and operate this area, so it’s a special place to me.”
Armenta said the marsh is home to many different species. As she removed a piece of trash at the water’s edge, she uncovered a whole bunch of crabs.
“It’s just wonderful to come out here and help preserve the habitat that is already hosting that many species, and to pull out some invasive weeds, that are poking around here and there,” she said, as she took a sprig of stinkwort from a bag for others to sniff. “I told everyone to stay out of the vegetation, and here I was pulling stuff out.”
A few of the more interesting items found, included a vintage Elvis cassette tape; a long shovel; a large metal boat dock; and a message in a bottle, addressed to a departed dog. The bottle was found by Cal State Fullerton roommates Emily Moreno and Elleanna Mauck. The message was written by a grieving pet owner to her dog, Hudson.
“He was with her for over 12 years,” Mauck said. “She said to have fun with his friends. I’ve never actually found a note in a bottle before.”
The message included the names of Hudson’s friends and paw prints, Emily Moreno added.
“It was really sweet when we saw it,” she said. “You see (messages in bottles) in the movies, but you never really see where it goes, and here’s one in the Santa Ana River Marsh.”
Rubyann Prout, LA District Contracting team lead for the district, also volunteered during the event.
“I think it’s a nice day to come out and clean up to help the environment,” Prout said, as she hauled her bags of trash to the assembly area.
Mark Cohen, chief of the LA District’s Operations Division – who frequently participates in cleanups of Corps-owned and operated lands – said it was a great community event, which brought together the public, federal government and local agencies, while also doing something good for the environment and for Corps’ projects.
Cohen filled his trash bag with mostly plastic bottles and bottlecaps, and also found a bicycle basket he described as “something Dorothy used in the ‘Wizard of Oz.’”
“I think a lot of this washed in (following Tropical Storm Hilary). It’s the nature of being so close to the river channel and to the ocean,” Cohen said. “I’ve seen a lot of beach-related debris, so I’m not surprised that would just wash right in here, unfortunately.
“I look at it, and it makes me just want to keep going with the cleanup effort because this natural area is so unique in Southern California – these coastal wetlands, and I’m so proud that the Army Corps of Engineers gets to play a role in protecting them.”
Cohen described his volunteerism as a good feeling and spoke with several civilian volunteers from the local community.
“They want to help, and it’s great for us to meet them, so that we know who we’re helping care for, and they know who is helping steward these lands,” he said. “Overall, just a feel-good event.”
LA District biologist Jon Rishi said there were many species present, such as the endangered and secretive light-footed ridgeways rail; the threatened California Belding savanna sparrow; California least tern; western snowy plover; and the California gnat catcher, but most people don’t know about salt marshes.
“Salt marshes are a rare, kind of a disappearing habitat,” he said. “It’s one of the most productive habitats on Earth. The productivity rivals a tropical rain forest. There’s a lot of productivity and a lot of biodiversity. This sort of habitat supports a lot of species.”
He pointed out a nesting platform high atop a tall pole that is home to an osprey, a raptor sometimes called the “fish eagle.” The big bird watched the cleanup from above between foraging flights.
Sylvia Bissonnette, local community member from Newport Shores, said she was aware of the trash in the marsh because she and her husband spotted it during paddleboarding.
“We paddle out here, we kayak, so we see a lot of trash,” she said. “It was our opportunity to come out here and pick up trash.”
Bissonnette noted that while Tropical Storm Hilary left a lot of debris in the protected area, she believes that much of what she collected came from homeowner’s decks at the water’s edge, such as deck chairs, pool covers and a heavy piece from a boat’s stern.
At the conclusion of the event, more than two tons of junk had been removed – bit by bit – by the volunteers, according to Nick Figueroa, LA District park ranger.
“We got 2.5 tons of debris removed from 92 acres in two hours, with 54 volunteers,” he said. “We accumulated 108 hours, which adds up to $3,434.40 in savings to the government.”
Brian Paul, Natural Resource program manager with the LA District’s Operations Division, stationed himself at the entrance to the salt marsh so he could open the gate and personally express his gratitude to those who gave up their Saturday morning.
“I want to thank everybody here for their commitment to environmental stewardship,” he said. “Every little thing that we do to clean up the environment helps out with endangered species and species of concern.”
Participants were surprised with a gift before they left – a pass good for any federal or national park.
National Public Lands Day is the largest annual volunteer hands-on restoration activity of its kind. During the event, thousands of volunteers across the nation come out to show their support at more than 70 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' projects.