Floating Debris Big Problem
Inside the Outdoors, July 16, 2010

Recently, I was told of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area consisting of a 1000- mile wide stretch of rubbish strewn across the waters consisting of bottles, both plastic and glass, fishnets, clothing, lighters and other man-made items. I began thinking, where did this stuff all come from? Then it hit me. The majority of the country’s citizens contributed to it by letting an empty beverage container lay in a street gutter, throwing an unwanted item into a creek, or just dumping unwanted items into waterways.

My mind shifted gears to the next level, and I began envisioning what if this stuff was thrown into Loyalhanna Creek instead, where would it end up and/ or what would become of it?

I then recalled the many fine years I spent fishing with my dear friend, Michael Stein, as we motored in his jon boat up and down the Conamaugh Lake area catching fish like there was no tomorrow. Needless to say, that is what we went for, but what really caught us off guard was the trash found floating down the waterways, up on the hillside and along the shoreline. It wasn’t unusual for Mike to scoop up three or four balls to take home with him.

Shortly after my wife talked to me about the Pacific problem, I decided to contact Dave Bishop, former manager of the Conamaugh and Loyalhanna Dam Lakes, and discuss just where all that floating debris came from and what is the process to eliminate it.

He started off my telling me “The Conamaugh has over 1,361 square miles of waterways emptying into it. This includes those as far away as Cresson and Johnstown. When it rains a lot of water will enter into the storm sewers, and with it the debris that may have been discarded nearby.”

Bishop also pointed out, “All it takes is a little wind, and the balls you spoke about may be blown from people’s yards to the streams and inlets. Eventually, they end up down here.”

“What happens after this stuff nears the dam?” I asked.

“We have constructed a log boom across the river sized 12 by 12 inches, held together by steel chain which is fastened to both banks. When the lake is high, the debris will come down and be held back by the boom from going any further. When the water goes down, we boat out and coral the debris and push it to the bank. We will pick through and separate a lot of the stuff, which has a mixture of all kinds of things. A bulldozer will then be brought in and the items will be removed and burned, if possible. This takes place once or twice a year, the first being late spring.

I then asked whether or not the same procedure is done at Loyalhanna Dam to which he replied, “We don’t have the quantity of debris as is found at the Conamaugh. Usually around spring in April, a number of volunteer groups will boat out and collect manmade items and haul them back to shore. As far as the natural growths, they will be tied off with the hopes that they will sink after so long.”

Finally, I asked Bishop what group of people has created the biggest problem as far as dumping debris into the rivers. I was amazed to learn those whom have lawn care businesses and especially contractors who will dump unwanted material into our waterways. I asked him if he could be more specific. He said “roofing shingles.”

“People whom throw tires in are also one of our worst contributors,” he added.

On a side note, Bishop told me he had just returned from a motorcycle tour through New York. He pointed out there was no litter anywhere where he traveled. “I think it must be part of Pennsylvania’s culture to litter,” he surmised. So, I sent out a quick survey via the Internet and in quick order heard from people in Kansas, Tennessee, and Utah. Two of the three people reported lots of littering in their state. However, the person from Utah stated there was none.

All summarized that “The persons who do this are lazy and don’t respect other people’s property. “The garbage is too insignificant to make that much difference, no one will notice this small amount; this is my property and I will do with it as I please,” were people’s comments.

Finally, a serviceman in Tennessee wrote, “The small town where I live has several parks. A few weeks ago, I spent my lunch hour cleaning one area up and the next day, someone had dumped several tree limbs, a dead dog in a garbage bag and a complete commode unit.”

Do you get the picture? Each of us has to work just a little bit harder if we are to preserve and conserve our natural resources. If not, we’ll only get what we asked for.

- Paul J. Volkmann
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