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Start of summertime brings trash to Austin’s greenbelts

Monday, June 3, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Austin’s greenbelts, though beautiful, have had a fraught history of visitors contaminating the wild beauty of the Central Texas landscape with their trash.

At the May 28 meeting of the Parks and Recreation Board meeting, Board Member Rich DePalma brought parks department staff and board members’ attention to this unfortunate, ongoing issue. DePalma said he saw a big increase in emails and Facebook posts after the Memorial Day weekend regarding overflowing trash receptacles and debris strewn in the Bull Creek Greenbelt. Parks staff told the Austin Monitor that the Barton Creek Greenbelt also experienced elevated levels of trash but said it was to be expected after a holiday weekend.

Normal or not, social media users were not pleased with the images of nature being trashed. An Instagram post from @365thingsaustin highlights the immense quantity of refuse left in the wake of the long weekend. Redditors too are angry. A post showing abandoned beach towels and swimming gear generated a discussion on how to limit the amount of garbage deposited in Austin’s wild places.

On social media, discussions around Austin’s parks culture erupted as citizens discussed mitigation methods, including social media campaigns and more trash bins in the greenbelt areas. DePalma, however, was reticent about those initiatives coming to fruition. He posted, “I’m afraid of what PARD’s budget will look like in the next few years with this (legislative) session’s new property tax limits.”

The parks department’s current budget is already strained trying to cover all trail maintenance. On average, there are six bins on the trailheads along Bull Creek and Barton Creek that are emptied twice daily. Tony Savage, the maintenance supervisor for Zilker Park, told the Monitor that during the summer season the average number of bins increases to 10-12, which includes both trash and recycling. That seasonal increase has helped keep trash out of the ecosystem. “The greenbelt overall is getting cleaner,” said Savage. “Less trash in the greenbelt means more trash in the trailhead.”

Justin Schneider, the community engagement specialist with Parks and Recreation, told the Monitor it is common to have an increased volume of trash following a holiday weekend and that more bins allow for less refuse. He acknowledged that litter in the greenbelts is an ongoing issue.

To combat the accumulation of trash, Parks and Recreation has implemented other solutions, including the Leave No Trace campaign, which encourages Austinites to pack out what they pack in. “It’s an uphill battle, but that’s exactly what we are trying to do … making sure that some of these principles of Austin – sustainability, caring for green space – that comes with responsibility. And not just for the people who are cleaning up the trash, but the people who are creating the trash as well,” Schneider said.

The battle against trash reaches far beyond these two well-loved trails; throughout the city’s 20,000 acres of green space, waste from people and from pets has consistently been a thorn in the parks department’s side.

Mateo Scoggins with the Watershed Protection Department told the Monitor that waste in the greenbelts has been a factor in the increased presence of E. coli in the city’s urban watersheds. Bull Creek, in particular, has seen an increasing correlation between people using the waterways and the presence of E. coli.

With the city facing budget cuts after the state Legislature capped the property tax revenue increase at 3.5 percent, the parks department will be relying heavily on the public to treat parkland responsibly.

In an effort to raise awareness on the state of the greenbelt trails, DePalma asked parks staff at the board meeting for an update on the efficacy of initiatives aimed at limiting littering, unleashed dogs and amplified music. The discussion will continue at the June meeting of the Parks and Recreation Board.

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