A woman’s birthday wish to provide food to unsheltered people along the Truckee River last month evolved into an ongoing effort to remove mountains of trash from the river’s edge before the rushing waters of spring can sweep the effluent downstream to Pyramid Lake.
Beverly Harry and 16 friends and family members, including many members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, brought 150 burritos to people living in tents along the Truckee in Sparks on Feb. 4. All along the waterway, they saw campsites — along with mounds of garbage, including human waste. Homeless people have found refuge along the river for decades, but during the pandemic their numbers increased exponentially.
Much of the refuse from the camps, once swept downstream, will wind up at Pyramid Lake, the terminus of the Truckee. The mission to provide food morphed into a cleanup effort.
Since then, Avory Wyatt, a member of the Washoe Tribe, inspired the original group to team up with other indigenous people and community volunteers to make the cleanups a longer-term campaign. So far, the River Justice volunteers have collected and hauled away more than 200 cubic yards of refuse scattered along the river banks. The next cleanup day is scheduled for April 3 and a larger effort to cleanse the river banks is being planned for April 24, the week of Earth Day.
“It was very surprising, shocking, to see first-hand what has happened to the river,” said Pyramid Lake Tribal Chairwoman Janet Davis. “There is so much trash along the banks, a lot right at the edge of the water. There are a lot of syringes… The people are living in terrible conditions; there are no restrooms.”
The trash problem isn’t limited to the many camping spots in the Truckee Meadows, she said. “What happens upstream affects everything downstream,” Davis said. “It all ends up in our lake, which has no outlet.” The tribe’s people, the lake’s fish, crops and livestock all depend on the health of the river that has fed the desert lake for millions of years.
DONATIONS TO RIVER JUSTICE: USPS: River Justice c/o Autumn Harry, PO Box 76, Nixon, NV 89424; through VenMo: @autumnharry; or at Zelle: firstname.lastname@example.org
The sacred lake
“It’s our obligation to monitor the river and remind the people upstream that we need to keep it safe, we need to keep the ecosystem clean, not just for us, but for everyone,” Davis said. “We need to be mindful of what we do to the water; water is life for everybody and we can’t take it for granted.”
The tribe, which has left nearly all of Pyramid Lake’s shoreline undeveloped, considers the lake a sacred place whose health is its ancient responsibility, she said.
Beverly Harry’s late husband, Norman Harry, was a former tribal chairman who was at the forefront of water quality and environmental issues for decades. He was a key negotiator during years of legal battles that ultimately led to a regional water pact and the restoration of the tribe’s water rights.
‘A holistic approach’
Beverly Harry said the effort to clean up the upstream river corridor is a continuation of that legacy. “Norm always said ‘what’s good for the fish is good for the people.’ We need to take a holistic approach to taking care of the water.”
Everything that happens along the river affects everything else along the course of the waterway, she said.
In addition to the trash generated by the camp sites, the cleanup teams noted that the route from the Waste Management transfer station, located at Kirman Street and the river, follows the Truckee’s route to the landfill at Lockwood. Garbage blows off the trucks, creating a trail of litter on the way to the dump.
Pollution into the river
Runoff from new developments in the Truckee Meadows also increases what environmentalists call non-source-point pollution. Rain sweeps trash and other pollutants, including pesticides from lawns and gardens, into storm drains, then into the river.
“Anything that flows into the river ultimately comes down to our lake. That’s always a concern. Development upstream has an effect downstream… This is looking like it’s going to be a dry year, with decreased water flow. Anything coming down the river is going to be even more of a detriment to the lake.”– Chairwoman Janet Davis, Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.
“It’s a real big mess,” said Beverly Harry, who is a member of the Navajo Tribe. “The counties and the cities need to step up to the plate. Approving all these new developments not only increases that pollution, but when these industrial parks and luxury housing developments get approved, rents go up even more and that contributes to homelessness. Renters get pushed out.
“We’ll be seeing an increasing amount of water pollution and we’re not getting the environmental justice for the river that we’d like to see,” she said. “The local governments, the state and the developers need to be taking care of the river.”
Food, water and respect
So far, the volunteers have made six trips to the encampments. They bring food, water, trash bags, sharps containers and other equipment. Josh Myers, of Myers Brothers Tree Care, brings a dump truck. Keep Truckee Meadows Beautiful supplied a 20-yard waste container.
The group raised $1,723 in donations on social media, including $450 from the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. Members of the effort are trying to raise $450 for each future cleanup to cover the costs of equipment.
Autumn Harry, Norm and Beverly’s daughter, is among the volunteers who contributed the elbow grease during the six river cleanups to date. The camps along the river are the most recent and visible effect of what has been happening upriver, she said.
“It’s a concern when we see all these large industries coming in along USA Parkway (in Storey County east of Reno),” she said. The people who work at Tesla and the other large employers there increase the traffic along the Interstate-80 river corridor. In Reno, massive housing projects for high-end homes have been approved, often in flood plains, she said.
Fast growth; limited resources
“We have to think about where the water is coming from to support that growth and where the runoff from all that developed land will go,” Autumn Harry said. “In (Reno’s) North Valleys, the growth will have an effect on the ground water at Pyramid Lake.”
Politicians often rubber-stamp approvals for large projects against wide opposition from communities, she noted.
“That connects back to the houseless issue we see along the river,” she said. Increased demand for housing and high property values raise the costs of rent beyond many people’s ability to pay. “In addition to the pandemic, a lot of people just can’t afford to rent a place in Reno anymore.”
Much of the recent cleanup effort has been focused on the river banks on the eastern edge of Reno and in Sparks. Camps are scattered at intervals and in small tent villages at or near parks or street overpasses. The people who live there have few options for their sanitation needs, Beverly Harry said.
“Between trail marker 51.5 and mile 59 we counted just eight trashcans and 2 bathrooms,” she said. “I know where they are going to relieve themselves.”
The river’s edge
The volunteers bring food and water to the campers. They supply bundles of firewood at camps where residents are stripping branches from trees and bushes that line the river banks and are essential to prevent erosion. On their cleanup missions, volunteers start conversations with unsheltered people about the river and where the water goes.
They hand out trash bags and return later with a dump truck to pick them up. People whose shelters are close to the river’s edge are encouraged to move their camps to higher ground so that they are not washed out when the water rises.
The cleanup crew members treat campers with respect, but it’s often hard to make connections. “They are focused on day-to-day survival,” Beverly Harry said. “It’s difficult to think about anything past that immediate need.”
‘Embarrassing to be out here’
On a recent walk along the bike trail along the river just east of downtown Reno, Beverly Harry visited the camp of a married couple who have been using the trash bags and are moving their tent higher on the Truckee’s banks. Jane, whose husband was not in camp, explained that they received one of their two pandemic stimulus checks and are moving to a weekly-rental motel. The windfall will buy them at least two months of a roof over their heads.
Jane, 19, who said she has lived on the streets on and off since she was 15, was asked how she and her husband are treated by people who have homes.
“I wish people would be more empathetic than sympathetic. I know what motivates me to do better is someone who has been there; they have wisdom. It’s embarrassing being out here. It sucks. People are always judging. It’s not my fault I was raised in a shitty home. I don’t want people to put me down. That doesn’t give me the motivation to get better. Being out here is not really a choice; it’s not for most people out here. People don’t really see us. I would ask people not to be such dicks to us, to be understanding about it. Then it would be a lot better.”– Jane, 19, who lived along the banks of the Truckee River this winter.
Causes and effects
The volunteers said that cleaning up the river banks is a start, but the problems the squatters’ camps bring into focus go far beyond the pandemic. Like the river system, all is connected; causes and effects are intertwined.
A lack of affordable housing, social services and mental health care; runaway development; fractured planning processes; political indifference; the overriding influence of wealthy corporations on decision makers; and many other factors affect the health of the river, they said.
“It comes back to the cities and the counties being accountable,” Beverly Harry said. “(Jane) gets a motel for two months, that’s what $1,400 in stimulus is going to do for them. It’s not a solution. The cities build more houses for elite people and more people are left without homes, or they have to rent without ever being afforded the opportunity to buy a home.”
“People have to realize that what’s happening along the river is connected to what happens with development… They have to realize there needs to be justice for the river.”– Beverly Harry, River Justice volunteer.
Autumn Harry said the unsheltered people should not be demonized. Their camps merely underline a greater threat to the area’s most vital resource – the fragile watershed that half a million people depend upon to survive. When people in Reno turn on their taps and water flows, then flush impure water away, they take that resource for granted, she said.
A matter of privilege
“I don’t really see a difference between the tent camps and the beautiful houses along the river on California Street,” she said. “We have people coming to our houses and picking up our trash, whereas the people on the river aren’t afforded those same luxuries. We’re not exempt from creating waste ourselves.”
Just like the campers at the river’s edge, Autumn Harry said, comfortable people in houses have a hard time seeing the effect of their actions on the environment – and the people – downstream. “It’s a really complex issue, there are a lot of parts to it,” she said. “But a lot of the responsibility falls back on the local governments.”
Education and awareness are keys to solving problems, she said.
“It’s a whole different thing when you are down at the river and see all the trash and what’s happening there,” Autumn Harry said. “When you’re aware of where that water is going afterward, of course you want to clean it up; of course you want to help. It’s not just a cosmetic thing. It’s a bigger issue that affects everyone.”