There’s no doubt Merced has made significant strides in recent years to clean up blighted areas. Mayor Matthew Serratto, unlike any city leader before him, has led ongoing community cleanups throughout his first term in office, and during his initial years on the City Council.
Other groups, such as Merced Walks and Friends of Merced, along with local students and everyday volunteers continue to play an important role in this widespread effort that targets every sector of town.
The Bear Creek Yacht Club is another key player that gets attention. They are the ones who ride kayaks on the creek to pick up hard-to-reach trash that has been dumped, thrown, or fallen into the water. Since 2021, they have conducted clean-up expeditions every other month on the creek.
However, one of Yacht Club leaders, Jeremiah Greggains, has reached out to the Times with some serious concerns that he says require immediate attention and support.
Bear Creek and its surrounding areas, according to Greggains, are continuing to face a crisis, marked by a persistent accumulation of debris, hazardous substances and human waste.
“Despite our tireless efforts, which have seen us remove over 60 tons of waste from our waterways, the situation continues to deteriorate,” he says. “This poses a dire threat not only to our environment but also to our local community, agriculture, and food supply.”
Greggains continues, “Bear Creek is an integral part of our region, serving both recreational and agricultural purposes. Regrettably, we have witnessed a troubling surge in litter, plastics, harmful chemicals, and human waste polluting our waters. This pollution not only mars our picturesque landscape but also places local ecosystems, soil quality, and community well-being in jeopardy. The ramifications extend to our agricultural sector.”
While being questioned over what specifically the Yacht Club is finding in Bear Creek, Greggains responds without hesitation: “Gasoline generator parts, propane canisters, spray paint cans, shampoo containers, tires, inner tubes, fuel, chemicals, plain old trash, human excrement …”
“When we first started,” Greggains told the Times, “We cleaned up years of neglect on the creek. But it keeps coming back. It’s a continuous amount of trash. It’s like we are spinning our wheels and not gaining any ground.”
Greggains points to homeless encampments along the creek as the main contributor to the problem. He said he spotted about 12 separate sites with multiple inhabitants along Bear Creek, within or near the city limits, during the Yacht Club’s last voyage in mid-October.
“We were down underneath the McKee Road Bridge, and there was also a team from the Sheriff’s Department, and we cleaned up the entire area. We went back two days later — and it was all back. It looked like we had gotten nowhere.”
Greggains believes the solutions to the problem are constant enforcement of laws, and perhaps new legal strategies that engage regulation linked to environmental pollution. He sees the District Attorney, the Merced Irrigation District (MID) and local law enforcement partners taking a more aggressive and proactive approach to keep Bear Creek clean and safe.
“We need enforceable environmental penal codes that the DA would actually prosecute,” Greggains said. “Maybe this could be done with the new police chief’s support. And, MID, well it’s their water, you’d think their rate payers would want clean water going to their ranches.”
He adds, “When you go camping in the Sierras, if you defecate next to a stream, you get fined. Here you can live in it.”
The Times reached out to MID officials regarding Greggains concerns. In a statement released by Mike Jensen, MID’s public and government relations manager, the agency indicated that it remains concerned about the ongoing challenges presented by homelessness.
“We understand that the issue of homelessness is complex and impacts communities across California, including our own. As an irrigation district, our primary focus is on water management, ensuring the efficient delivery and conservation of water resources for the benefit of agricultural operations.
“Merced Irrigation District is just that — an irrigation district which is focused on moving large quantities of water to local growers. To that end, we regularly coordinate with local law enforcement to relocate homeless from our waterways. We will continue to do so and support efforts to address these challenges as best we can.”
Mayor Serratto agrees with the Yacht Club that waste in Bear Creek remains an issue; however, he says efforts over the past few years have indeed made a great impact.
“Of course there’s an inflow of trash,” Serratto told the times, “but thanks to their efforts and others, there’s been an outflow of trash that just wasn’t happening before.”
The mayor says there are two ways to look at cleanups in an objective manner. One is to simply weigh the trash that is cleared into bins. “We have found on our return cleanups that the amount collected has been dramatically less — up to a quarter less than when we started in a certain area.” The second big factor, according to the mayor, is how long it takes to get from Point A to Point B on city waterways and pick up everything “Again, I have found that on Bear Creek and Black Rascal, what once took an hour to go 100 years, it now takes an hour to go 500 yards.”
Mayor Serratto, who also works as a prosecutor, agrees that the waste problems in Bear Creek are an enforcement issue. But he also points out that “it’s mostly misdemeanors like trespassing.” People get a ticket for something that’s clearly evident, and are asked to leave, but that doesn’t stop the behavior.
He says it’s harder to prosecute felonies related to a threat to Bear Creek, including arson, though authorities have had some success prosecuting vandalism to the creek. Last year, according to the mayor, a man faced jail time for digging into the side of the creek near 25th Street. He later was released from jail, and apparently skipped town, Serratto said.
The Yacht Club’s Greggains says the next cleanup on Bear Creek is scheduled for the second Saturday in December.
Until then, he would like to share the following concerns:
“1. Water Quality: The contaminants infiltrating our local waterways compromise our irrigation water, potentially affecting the quality of water vital for our local farms.
“2. Soil Contamination: The influx of chemicals could undermine soil quality, leading to reduced crop yields and lower-quality agricultural produce.
“3. Food Safety: Absorption of chemicals by crops could result in food safety issues, jeopardizing consumer health and our local food supply.”