Friends of Switzer Canyon: Taking on the Trash

Before the industrial age, most of our trash decayed, consumed by other organisms. Now, in the epoch I like to refer to as the “plasticene”, our trash tends to hang around. Most people agree that trash makes an area look neglected and dangerous. A lot of food wrapper trash is unhealthy for wildlife because it looks edible, or has food residue on it that encourages animals to eat it, but it’s not digestible. Trash makes our urban canyons look bad.

Switzer Canyon runs from the east to the west in the south part of North Park. It’s a small open space — about 100 acres — that offers views of downtown and slopes that are green even in the hottest summer months. About 10 years ago, the city department that maintains the sewers (San Diego Metropolitan Wastewater Department or MWWD) planned to build access roads throughout the canyon but was deflected by organized citizen complaints.

The Switzer Canyon neighbors who found each other at that time decided to form Friends of Switzer Canyon and start taking care of the area. At that time, the bottom of the canyon was solidly trash-strewn — mattresses from urban campers, food wrappers, numerous water heaters (perhaps dumped by a home remodeler), empty spray paint cans, full spray paint cans and old car batteries.

Friends of Switzer Canyon picked up all this junk, taking it home to toss in the black or blue bin. For years it seemed endless, each rain storm brought a new load of trash down the creek, piling up behind each stand of mule fat. And, we expected to pick it up forever. But this year was different, although it took awhile before it sank in — have you ever noticed that noticing an absence is more difficult than noticing a presence?

Here it is: We had several rain storms this year, but there is almost no trash in the stream. Looking back, I concluded that our success can be attributed to three factors:

1) Having organized events where trash pick-up was a primary or secondary goal,

2) Encouraging neighbors to pick up trash individually when they walk in the canyon and

3) Installing a trash can that is maintained by the city’s park staff.

We found that lots of people will pick up one or two bits during a walk and put it into the can. These small actions add up. Now, we can say we have the trash problem at a “maintenance” level. There will always be some, but it’s easy enough now to get it all with a couple of hours of work per year.

With the trash under control, it’s easier to admire the beauty of Switzer Canyon. Taking a walk down the hill from 28th Street, you’ll see yellow-and orange-flowered prickly pear (Opuntia littoralis), bright yellow carpets of fascicled tar-weed (Deinandra fasciculata), and the raspberry-colored flowers of chalk dudleya (Dudleya pulverulenta). At the bottom of the hill, a walk into the creek will be rewarded by the towering, 4-inch yellow flowers of evening primose (Oenothera elata ssp. hirsutissima). The San Diego Plant Atlas project is a good place to look for a list of all the plants or birds found in Switzer Canyon.

– CARRIE SCHNEIDER

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