CENTRAL VALLEY – Rural land and roadsides have become dumping grounds.

Old mattresses, sofas, appliances, tires and household garbage are routinely dumped along the sides of rural roadways, causing an unsightly mess and bringing added cost for the farmer or the county, who must pay to have the mess cleared or taken to the dump.

Louie Bandoni, who farms almonds in Merced County, said the issue of illegal dumping in rural areas has been going on forever—and that some farmers have trash dumped on their properties as often as every week.

“I’ve had everything: washing machines, TVs, lots of tires, general garbage, engines and even stripped and burned cars,” Bandoni said. “People constantly dump on our properties and along the roadside, and there’s basically no consequence for it.”

Under the California Penal Code, it is illegal to dump “waste matter” on a public or private roadway, on private property without the owner’s consent or on public property. The violation is an infraction punishable by a fine between $250 and $3,000, based on the number of previous offenses. Another section of the code makes it illegal to dump “commercial quantities”—generally considered to be an amount more than 1 cubic yard—which is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and fines between $1,000 and $10,000, based on the number of previous convictions.

But in Bandoni’s experience, “illegal dumping never gets solved.”

“There is no incentive to stop the illegal dumping,” he said. “We’ve caught them in the act. I had a neighbor who caught an illegal dump, chased them down, we got the sheriff and he said, ‘What would you like us to do?’ There’s just no enforcement behind it.”

Monterey County Sheriff’s Detective Kenneth Owen said violators of illegal dumping are rarely caught in the act.

“This crime is typically committed in rural areas, often during darkness, and it is easy for violators to ensure that no one is around and watching them before they begin dumping,” said Owen, who added that to be cited, violators must be caught in the act of dumping.

“If a violator is caught by a deputy parked on the side of the road with a load of trash in his pickup bed, even if we suspect he was planning to dump the trash illegally, we cannot take enforcement action,” he said. “Likewise, if a violator is parked on the side of the road with an empty truck near a pile of trash, absent other information that links him to the pile of trash, we cannot take enforcement action.”

When illegal dumping cases are solved, Owen said it is because the deputy investigating the crime takes the time to dig through the trash and find identifying evidence.

“Targeted, proactive enforcement against illegal dumping is prohibitively costly and not effective,” Owen said. “Penalties are light. The fine for running a red light is almost double the fine for dumping, and these are difficult cases to solve.”

Monterey County Farm Bureau executive director Norm Groot said the problem of illegal dumping near farmland also represents a food safety concern, adding that this is an acute problem due to people living in campers along railroad right-of-way near farmland in Salinas.

“Their trash is blowing onto the processing facilities adjacent to the tracks, which causes food safety issues,” Groot said, adding that theft and vandalism has also increased.

Owen agreed that “illegal dumping in Monterey County is an ongoing, constant problem,” noting that the recreational vehicles dumping on or near farmland or waste from methamphetamine labs can create a serious public health hazard.

Taylor Roschen, a policy advocate for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said the limited opportunity to enforce illegal dumping most certainly worsens the problem, adding that rural areas just don’t lend themselves to the patrolling necessary to catch perpetrators, and said an infraction or warning often isn’t enough of a deterrent.

“When illegal dumping occurs on private property and not on the public right-of-way, the local jurisdiction won’t or can’t access private property for cleanup and abatement activities,” Roschen said. “Often, this means farmers and private property owners have to move the dumped material on the public roadways or rights-of-way, so then they can report it for abatement—just another headache.”

While CalRecycle and some counties have programs to cover trash-removal costs incurred by private property owners, farmer Jeff Stephens of Yuba City has taken another approach. In November, he founded a group called SAYLOVE (SAY stands for “Sutter and Yuba”), a grassroots citizens organization formed to beautify the area.

“I just got tired of people dumping their garbage on the side of the road and I got tired of picking up people’s trash. I wanted to do something about it,” Stephens said. “If there is a problem with illegal dumping or a park that needs attention, we have a force of people that can go in and do something about it.”

Putting out a call to action to community volunteers and service organizations, SAYLOVE holds community workdays on the last Saturday of the month.

The group has held two cleanup days this year. Stephens said the first attracted 35 volunteers who picked up 26,000 pounds of trash; the second event drew 65 people who removed 46,000 pounds of trash. An event scheduled this Saturday is sponsored by the Yuba-Sutter Farm Bureau and includes lunch for volunteers.

“Farmers love it because it’s cleaning up a big mess,” Stephens said. “My hope is that people see that we care—and maybe if you see people out actually working to clean up the mess, maybe they won’t put it there. I’m trying to change a culture.”

-Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.

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