The City of Eugene has temporarily closed the North Bank Path on Tuesday, March 9, as crews clean and clear the riparian area between Valley River Center and Ferry Street Bridge. The closure will allow staff to safely work and allows those camping space to pack their belongings and vacate the area. The closure may extend into Wednesday if staff need to return. The closure will only be in place when staff are present and working. The path will reopen at night.
The City acquired the North Bank property from the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) in February. The City has received complaints from community members about garbage, pollution, behavior and camping issues at this site for years because people assumed it was City property. Park rules now apply to this area, which is a sensitive riparian area and camping is not allowed.
Following more than six weeks of outreach, campers were notified on March 3 of the scheduled cleanup. City staff have shared with campers throughout the year that this site is not suitable for camping due to the riparian area.
The City has coordinated outreach at this site to people experiencing homelessness since January. Both City staff and outreach providers have let people camping at the site know what park rules would soon apply and the site would be cleared and cleaned. As of Friday, the site was down from more than 22 tents to about 13. Staff were out again Friday handing out garbage bags and reminding folks of the cleanup.
Staff have performed two large trash cleanups leading up to the transfer of property. They removed about 14,000 pounds of trash in those cleanups.
For years, volunteers with the local nonprofit Willamette Riverkeeper have worked by boat and on land to try to and remove the garbage and other pollutants from the water as a result of the camping along this stretch. They have spent hundreds of hours as this location but only able to address a fraction what makes it into the river. This area gets worse when the spring rains arrive.
“The north bank site has always been a problem area due to its topography and the presence of camping,” said Michelle Emmons, Willamette Riverkeeper South Valley Advocate. “Because campers often clear away vegetation, which is holding soil in place, erosion occurs. This causes problems with channelization, degrading both riparian habitat and water quality. Furthermore, debris travels downhill during highwater events, or just naturally as gravity pulls it to the lowest point in the area. This further degrades water quality, posing significant safety risk to both wildlife and humans, as debris, feces, plastics, household chemicals, and needles are taken down stream, redeposited, and spread out in other areas along the river.
“Riparian zones are not safe places for houseless campers to live. There are upland alternatives, that do not pose the same kind of risks to human health, water quality or access to the river,” Emmons said.
Willamette Riverkeeper has been addressing clean water advocacy and river cleanup efforts as part of their river Guardians program in Eugene and Springfield since 2014.
Following this week’s cleanup, staff will be removing invasive blackberry and ivy, seeding for native plants and address erosion issues. They will maintain this site as they do the rest of the natural area along the Willamette River.
Protecting riparian areas
Eugene’s waterways are part of the larger Willamette River watershed system that provides many beneficial uses such as recreating, fishing, irrigation, and drinking. The main stem of the Willamette River flows through Eugene for approximately six miles. Surface runoff from our urban area is conveyed to the Willamette River, either directly via outfalls to the river, or through a combination of pipes and open waterways, including Spring Creek Flat Creek, Amazon Creek and the Long Tom River. Several local waterways are listed by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) as “water quality impaired,” or not meeting certain water quality standards for their designated beneficial uses, including the Willamette River which is water quality limited for bacteria, mercury, and temperature.
Open waterways, comprised of earthen bottoms and adjacent vegetated riparian areas, provide important water quality functions. Besides serving as drainage and flood control facilities, healthy, intact waterways intercept and slow down runoff, control erosion, filter pollutants, enhance infiltration and groundwater recharge, and moderate stream temperature. Waterways are also vulnerable to impact from certain uses and activities that, if conducted within the channel or riparian areas, can lead to increased pollution downstream. Removing vegetation, depositing trash, not removing pet waste, and other similar actions cause degradation of downstream water quality and could result in increased pollutant loadings, increased erosion and sedimentation, and higher stream temperatures.
Temporary urban camping
The City has developed criteria aimed at balancing the need for places to sleep with the public health crisis that requires adequate physical distancing to protect community members’ health and well-being. These criteria set parameters around location of camps, safety and cleanliness, acceptable behaviors and impacts to neighbors, the environment, and city infrastructure. Full criteria are available on the Temporary Urban Camping web page.
In conjunction with the current temporary camping criteria, staff are also continuing to work to find safe places for unhoused community members, including new microsites, additional Rest Stops, additional overnight car camping sites, and in existing shelters. We know these are successful programs and continue to bring more of these online – as well as work towards implementing the Lane County Homeless Services System recommendations (TAC report) in partnership with Lane County.