AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin leaders received a book-long report Wednesday on the trash we find in the city’s creeks and rivers.

The city’s Watershed Protection Department (WPD) released a 130-page field study conducted from November 2021 to April 2022 documenting where the trash is found, where it comes from and how to clean it up.

The study looked at 19,467 observations made in 20 watersheds along 110 miles of streams.

The trash in creeks study was supposed to begin in 2020 but was delayed until November 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. WPD waited until winter, because it said that would be when the trash was most visible due to dormant vegetation.

The study identified seven sources of trash:

  • Illegal dumping
  • Overflowing dumpsters
  • Property management
  • Encampments
  • Historic dumping
  • Point source dumping
  • Outfalls/tributaries
Creek areas surveyed in the 2021-22 trash in creeks field study. (Source: City of Austin Watershed Protection Department)
Creek areas surveyed in the 2021-22 trash in creeks field study. (Source: City of Austin Watershed Protection Department)

According to the WPD:

  • 76% of the trash was found at 10% of the sites.
  • Trash was most intense at locations of illegal dumping.
  • The most common trash item was single-use plastic/polystyrene beverage and food containers.
  • Encampments were the most common source of trash.
  • High trash intensity were also common in areas without an encampment source.
  • Trash location was primarily driven by physical factors such as dense vegetation and not necessarily by human development.
  • The survey’s maps can be used to focus cleanup efforts on particular creeks to clean up the most amount of trash in the smallest areas.
  • Scooters were not a big trash issue. Only 21 were discovered, and there is an active 311 process to have
    them removed by the vendor.

Among the recommendations the WPD has for future surveys:

  • Large assessments should happened from November through April.
  • Small site assessments can be conducted at any time of year.
  • Conduct a repeat-visit survey at locations representing different parts of the city that looks at
    accumulations rates after an area has been completely cleared of trash by clean-up crews.
  • Work with all City departments that handle litter and trash in survey purpose, methods, locations and data interpretation.

To clean up creeks, WPD recommended:

  • Continue creek cleanups with staff, subcontractors and volunteer organizations.
  • Target creek cleanups at the locations of highest trash intensity, especially those with woody vegetation.
  • Target large-diameter storm outlets after major storm events.
  • Follow up with enforcement for each location identified as “Point Source Dumping”
  • Increase incentives for Adopt-a-Creek and other programs that encourage citizens to collect trash throughout our stream network using the data and tools generated from this report.

To keep trash out of the creeks, WPD recommended:

  • Develop programs to incentivize proper disposal of trash and recyclables for people experiencing homelessness.
  • Review and improve ordinances and enforcement to reduce incidence of overflowing dumpsters.
  • Increase requirements for minimum dumpster size for commercial and multifamily and require
    secondary containment around the dumpsters (fences, walls, etc).
  • All picnic tables (in parks and commercial/multifamily) near creeks should have a waste receptacle near
  • Strengthen City ordinances on telecommunication providers, assess fines for abandoned lines
  • Review/study street sweeping efficiency/effectiveness in geographically targeted areas
  • Improve and promote enforcement programs that report dumping and other source of trash getting to
  • Evaluate appropriate trash controls within drainage conveyance system. E.g. Trash racks or modification
    of storm water controls at outlets to creeks and/or detention facilities.
  • Promote ways for stores to keep shopping carts onsite

To reduce the overall trash amount, WPD recommended:

  • Campaigns or strategies to reduce use of single use plastics and polystyrene including but not limited to
    continued/increased education/outreach, regulations/bans and political solutions.
  • Expand and improve education and outreach efforts showing people how their trash could end up in their creeks and waterways.
  • Work with other city departments on litter and trash issues in our watersheds, with the goal of a citywide, integrated trash management effort.