Conservation Corner

Mar 25

[ARCHIVED] Swan Creek Clean-up

The original item was published from March 25, 2021 3:48 PM to March 25, 2021 3:50 PM

Swan Creek Park is 373 acres of green space with boundaries spanning both East Tacoma and unincorporated Pierce County, featuring a salmon-bearing stream, a wooded canyon, upland forest, paved and natural trails, community gardens, and mountain bike trails. It is an urban oasis on the Eastside, and as you walk through the ravine it’s easy to feel like you are miles away in a state park, even though it’s walking distance from a major highway. Strikingly, just off River Road you can see where Swan Creek connects to the Puyallup River, and from that point on a clear day you can see all the way to the mountain that mothers the waters of the Puyallup Watershed.

It’s hard not to feel connected to it all, especially when you imagine all the people, homes, plants, yards, and paths our rains touch as they make their way down ultimately to the Puyallup River. And while we might feel small at the foot of it all, when we come together, we can make a big impact, as the East Tacoma Collaborative Community Leadership Team was able to demonstrate during the height of the pandemic in 2020. They won the Pierce Conservation District’s Brian Abbott Above and Beyond Award for their innovation, leadership, collaboration, and impact on Swan Creek; this is their story.

Longstanding Challenges on the Eastside, and in Swan Creek

Currently managed by Metro Parks Tacoma and Pierce County Parks, Swan Creek is among the traditional homelands of the Puyallup Tribe, whose official ownership was lost as a result of the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. Swan Creek, however, continues to hold sacred cultural and spiritual significance to the Puyallup people to this day.

In the years since Swan Creek transitioned from traditional indigenous stewardship, the river has had problems with pollution due to a variety of factors. Since 2008, the Pierce County Surface Water Management (SWM) division has tracked and reported the water quality of streams and lakes in an annual Surface Water Report Card; streams and lakes are graded on a scale of 'F' (failing) to 'A' (excellent). In 2017, Swan Creek received a "C" grade, and as recently as 2018, Swan Creek received a “D .” Organizations around the watershed including Pierce Conservation District have been doing their part to “Raise the Grade” of rivers and streams like Swan Creek, with multi-pronged approaches ranging from citizen science monitoring initiatives like Stream Team, to offering technical assistance to local farms whose waters run into the creek. Since everyone within the watershed is somehow connected to the waters that run into the creek, it is going to take every single one of us if we are to truly make an impact to raise the grade of Swan Creek’s waters. This is where the East Tacoma Collaborative Community Leadership Team (ETC CLT) comes in.

                The ETC CLT is a group of community leaders on Tacoma’s East side who share a common vision of a healthy and vibrant Eastside community. Supported by the Pierce Conservation District’s Harvest Pierce County program and the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department, the ETC CLT is composed of community leaders from different backgrounds, with a mission to represent, connect, and celebrate different communities that make up the collective identity of Tacoma’s East side. This is crucial, as Tacoma’s East side is one of Pierce County’s most socially diverse areas, with intentionally mixed-income housing and over 41 different languages reportedly spoken in the Salishan neighborhood alone. It is also worth noting that Salishan borders Swan Creek, so many different communities from different cultural perspectives interact daily with this community greenspace, each finding importance in the space in their own way.

Water is Life: Inspiration from Standing Rock

The inspiration for the cleanup came to ETC CLT member Vidal Rojas when he was walking through Swan Creek Park and reflecting on his time at Standing Rock’s Intertribal demonstration to protect their water; he was there with his Mexican Indigenous group Ireta P’urhepecha to show support of the larger effort. The problem seemed almost insurmountably big to him at the time, but he imagined everyone who had come together at Standing Rock going back to their own homes, each taking the spirit of the demonstration with them to do something to protect the waters of their own watersheds.

“Maybe we each are only able to do something small,” he said, “but if all of us do something small, together we can accomplish something great.”

Other ETC CLT members shared with Vidal the experience of connecting to Swan Creek not only as a landscape, but as a sacred, lifegiving being that needs to be respected. They were pained to see the litter, tires, and vandalism among the trees and in the waters. Vidal proposed the idea to clean the creek to his fellow ETC CLT group members, and a Swan Creek Community Action subgroup was born, made up of Christian Lopez, Luis Garcia, Vidal Rojas.

Each ETC CLT member connected their own community groups and organizations to support the event. Vidal brought the support of Mexican Indigenous cultural group Ireta P’urhepecha, who began the week with a ceremony to ask permission of Mother Earth and the ancestors of the land before the cleaning began. Christian Lopez connected VT Radio Universal, a Spanish language community radio station he founded, and produced multiple spots getting the word out in both Spanish and English. Luis Garcia represented Latinos Outdoors - Comunidad to the cleanup, a group of outdoor enthusiasts seeking to support and encourage connection to nature in the Lantinx community, and inclusion of Latinx identities in outdoor activities. And finally, Maria Teresa Gamez, who is herself an Eastside community member who deeply loves Swan Creek Park, supported as a representative of Tacoma Solid Waste (TSW), who acted as an important agency partner in support of the cleanup. Each group played a pivotal role in getting the word out, recruiting volunteers, and cleanup logistics. 

Hosting a Cleanup Event During a Pandemic

The original idea was to host the cleanup on Earth Day 2020, but the pandemic had just hit and the idea was postponed. By summer, it was clear that the pandemic was here to stay, and since Swan Creek Park was one of the only places that remained open to the public, the litter increased exponentially. More than ever, the group saw the need for the community to take matters into their own hands, and begin restoring this beloved greenspace that they began calling ‘the lungs of our neighborhood.’

Following Tacoma Pierce County Health Department’s safety guidelines, the group decided to make the event one week long so they could split the cleanup into shifts of socially distanced groups of five. They handed out gloves and masks, as well as information on COVID19, recycling, and trash disposal in multiple languages. The City of Tacoma Environmental Services contributed two dumpsters and trash bags, and Metro Parks lent trash pickers, which were cleaned before and after every shift with a bleach solution.

Community Ingenuity leads to 2.7 tons of trash removal

The group was startled to find an enormous amount of tires of all sizes in and around the riverbed. There is no access road close to the river; in order to get the tires out, one has to carry each one while scaling a winding ravine. An overwhelming task, this has resulted in the buildup of mounds of tires all along the river. Tires have been identified as a key polluter that contributes to the decline of salmon, and Swan Creek is a salmon-bearing stream. One thing was clear: the tires had to go.

The group members responded to this need by creating rigs out of fallen branches and rope, skewering and hoisting the tires up over their shoulders as they carried them up and out of the creek. In the end, they were able to recover 2.7 tons of degrading tires and trash that would otherwise remain polluting the river.

“Our work is not over; it has just begun.”

From the beginning, the group agreed that the most important part of the cleanup would be the follow up.

While it is crucial that community members see Swan Creek as their home and come together to keep it clean, the cleanup itself highlighted structural issues on the Eastside of Tacoma. For example, setting up a community cleanup required an understanding of which parcels of land within Swan Creek were owned by different entities; this is not common knowledge for most community members, and presented multiple barriers in the group trying to realize their goal of cleaning up the river.

It was also unclear where the mountain of tires the group found were coming from in the first place. The group debriefed their cleanup with over 17 different agencies, many of whom continued to meet with ETC CLT members throughout the rest of the year to come up with action plans. Among other things, agencies committed to: investigating the source of the tires, implementing multilingual signage in the park, and working to simplify and streamline the process for organizing a community cleanup.

The ETC CLT remains committed to cleaning and respecting Swan Creek Park as a living being, and calling other communities into that work. They are already aligning for a second cleanup starting on April 17th and concluding on April 22nd, which is Earth Day 2021 - this time in partnership with the Puyallup Tribe’s Sustainability Team. The Pierce Conservation District is honored to present the Brian Abbott Above and Beyond Award to the ETC CLT as an example of how much impact we can all have when we work together, and especially when the community leads the way.

 You can find more information about how to get involved and the cleanup itself on the ETC CLT’s Facebook page, at @ETCCLT.