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The City Journals

Jordan River cleanup efforts continue

Apr 01, 2021 02:46PM ● By Darrell Kirby

It’s not spotless, but West Valley City officials and volunteers have made great strides to clear the Jordan River of trash and transient camps. (Darrell Kirby/City Journals)

By Darrell Kirby | [email protected]

The Jordan River can be an asset and a problem along its 50-mile course from Utah Lake to the Great Salt Lake at Farmington Bay. 

It offers a natural, peaceful setting for walking, biking, kayaking and canoeing through the center of northern Utah, Salt Lake, and southern Davis counties. 

But sections of the river over the years have drawn people experiencing homelessness, transients, and those who see it as a convenient place to dump trash and junk. 

Four years ago, West Valley City leaders decided to tackle the degradation of the Jordan River within city boundaries. 

Today, officials say areas along the river have been mostly cleared of debris and unwanted visitors. “Trash, encampments, and phragmites, it pretty much runs the whole gamut,” said West Valley City manager Wayne Pyle of what was encountered and removed during the cleanup effort. Phragmites are tall, reedy, invasive plants that grow in wetland areas and can be dense enough to hinder access to the river and take away nutrients from other plants, fish, and aquatic life. 

Thousands of pounds of trash and junk have been removed from the river and its banks, everything from the usual bottles, cans, and paper products to clothing, shopping carts and furniture. “It gets really nasty really fast,” Pyle said.

Pyle helped form a task force of city and county officials, parks maintenance people, law enforcement, volunteers, and other parties to take on the job of making the river and its surroundings a better place and keeping it that way. “Cleanup has been an ongoing, off-again, on-again, different-ideas-sort-of-thing as long I’ve been with the city ” said Pyle, who joined West Valley City in 1997. “We would go through good periods and bad periods.”

People experiencing homelessness find the river a quiet, hidden place to set up camp, which contributes to the problem of garbage and unsanitary conditions. Pyle said those people are encouraged to take advantage of better options. “The City has taken the posture of ‘we’re going to help you out however we can,’” including directing people experiencing homelessness to social services, shelters, and permanent housing. That approach and increased policing has helped move a good number of people experiencing homelessness away from the West Valley portion of the river. “We definitely have seen an improvement in the overall situation,” Pyle said. 

A key force in cleaning up the river and its surroundings has been citizen volunteers organized in part by the Jordan River Commission, which pulls together member cities and other entities to coordinate planning for the waterway. 

Corrina McMurtrey jumped into the cleanup with both feet. Her interest in the Jordan River was sparked by an environmental science class she took at Salt Lake Community College. “The first time I did it, I was excited until we got on the water. It kind of stunk and was dirty. There is no shortage of trash for anyone to pull out,” she said. 

McMurtrey pushed on, picking up as much debris as possible, including a shopping cart, which she and others managed to lug into their canoe. “It was rewarding in that we were able to feel like we were making a difference, but also upsetting in realizing that trash should have never been there in the first place,” she said. Undaunted, she recruited friends and family members to join her on her birthday in October to collect more garbage. “I definitely think I’ll do it as a birthday tradition.” 

Another volunteer, Katie Newburn, agreed there was plenty of trash to go around. “We found lots and lots of single-use plastic items, we found a bike frame, lots of crazy things.” 

She is happy to have a hand in making the Jordan River a clean and safe natural refuge in a growing metropolitan area. “Giving back to your community, especially to environments that you appreciate, feels wonderful,” Newburn said. 

Along with the cleanup, West Valley City is making improvements to Jordan River Redwood Trailhead Park, which it acquired from Salt Lake County. Located near 1000 W. 2300 South, the park provides access to the Jordan River Parkway Trail. Pyle says the City plans to upgrade the park and its facilities like the restrooms and playground.

Most of the bill for the cleanup has been footed by West Valley City with help from the Salt Lake County Health Department and Rocky Mountain Power, which has property and utility infrastructure along the river. 

Pyle said there was no way for the City to avoid the expense. “We’re just going to have to bite the bullet and do this, because it’s going to cost us more in the long term letting this go.”