It goes without saying that a normally healthy creek robbed of its signature babble due to prolonged drought conditions is a disheartening sight.
But leave it to officials in San Jose, California, to find an upside to waterways in which the water itself has stopped flowing.
Over the past year, city officials, aided by numerous community-based volunteer litter cleanup groups, have taken full advantage of California's devastating four-year drought by descending on local creek beds to retrieve trash that would have difficult to detect and reach if the creeks were flowing at normal, healthy levels.
And this isn’t exclusively run-of-the-mill errant waste that we’re talking about but “legacy garbage” that’s been obscured for years, even decades, underneath the surface. In turn, the city’s waterway trash-removal efforts have more closely resembled archaeological digs than standard litter-plucking expeditions. And these efforts have proven to be incredibly fruitful with cleanup missions at 32 identified creek “hotspots” throughout the city increasing by 73 percent compared to 2014, a year when water levels were decidedly higher.
So what, you may ask, comprises legacy garbage?
It’s exactly what you might think it would be in San Jose, California’s third most populous city and Capital of Silicon Valley. While cleanup crews have removed the usual suspects — creepy dolls, car parts and junked appliances — from parched creek beds, they’ve also unearthed and hauled off a sizable cache of vintage e-waste: floppy disks, computer monitors, cassette tape decks, even typewriters.
A recent press release issued by the city’s Environmental Services Department doesn’t specifically pulling mention fax machines and VHS players from these waterlogged 1980s tech graveyards but I’m guessing that those too have been lurking beneath the surface of San Jose’s waterways for decades.
The department has documented some of the more unusual items removed from dry creek beds on its Flickr account.
“There aren’t many positive aspects from the California drought, but this silver lining has allowed our teams to make San José a cleaner place,” says department director Kerrie Romanow. “It also helps us to better see the long-lasting negative impacts of illegal dumping and litter.”
So thanks, I guess, horrible, very bad, no good drought. You may have disrupted agricultural and transformed huge swaths of California into a post-apocalyptic hellscape but at least you’ve made cleaning up ancient litter all the much easier. (Another positive: you’ve forced Californians to become smarter, more conscientious water users which was much needed, historic drought or not).
This all said, San Jose’s obsolete Walkmans and floppy disk-bound copies of Castle Wolfenstein weren’t necessarily chucked directly into San Jose’s creeks. Rather, many moons ago, they were somehow displaced from garbage cans and wound up in the streets before entering city storm drains and, eventually, local waterways.
The San Jose Environmental Services Department notes that in 2015 alone, over 6,000 volunteers participating in 109 cleanup events removed a staggering 626 tons of litter — along with more specialized forms of refuse — from trash-clogged creek beds as well as from city streets. That’s enough waste to fill 42 semi-trucks.
It’s always revealing — and just bit terrifying — to see what exactly what type of man-made detritus is clinging to the bottom of creek and riverbeds. It can say a lot about a certain place and the people who live there. In this instance, it's reflective of the tech-driven economy of San Jose.
And while having nothing to do with drought, Paris made headlines earlier this year when the famed Canal Saint-Martin was drained for the first time in over a decade, revealing some intriguing finds including firearms, cell phones, mopeds, grocery carts, loads of wine and beer bottles and a whole lot of discarded property belonging to Vélib’, a city-wide bike-share programmed introduced in 2007. Wine bottles and bicycles … seems about right.