Why is Depot Park’s retention pond full of trash?

Photo by Marcelo Rondon.

Spend enough time gazing at the brackish waters of Depot Park’s retention pond, and you will notice that it’s filled with trash. Frogs and turtles dart among the plastic water bottles and potato chip bags bobbing on the pond’s surface, which is shimmery with residue. Birds perch atop styrofoam cups.

Park Manager Cindi Harvey said her staff works hard to keep the pond clean by skimming trash off the surface once a week. But more than two years after Depot Park’s grand opening, Harvey said the park still isn’t fully staffed, making it hard to keep the litter at bay.

“The park is a great tool to educate the community, but we need help,” Harvey said. “We are a staff of 10, and we certainly can’t do it alone.”

Why is the trash in the pond in the first place? The retention pond is an integral part of downtown Gainesville’s stormwater filtration system, which is designed to prevent contaminated water from leaching into the aquifer. But Harvey said the storm drains that bring water to the pond from streets and roofs downtown can also bring litter.

“What happens on Friday, Saturday — hell, every night of the week in downtown Gainesville?” Harvey said. “Students go out, they party, they drop their trash on the ground. … Eventually it makes its way to the [park’s] forebays.”

Depot Park does have a system in place to collect large pieces of garbage. Before water goes into the retention pond, it is sent through “trash traps,” the areas of the park that look like small greenhouses. The trash traps are supposed to collect large pieces of litter, but Harvey said excess items are still making their way into the pond.

Harvey said her staff is still learning how to operate the park’s facilities, which includes developing a maintenance schedule to figure out how frequently the trash traps need to be cleaned in order to prevent trash from reaching the pond.

“We are constantly learning, tweaking, repairing, working together,” Harvey said. “That trash trap is no exception.”

But large pieces of trash aren’t the only contaminant present in stormwater. Anything that washes off the road, like antifreeze, gasoline, pesticides and fertilizers, can make its way to Depot Park’s retention pond. Even too much soil in the pond can pose a problem.

“If you see styrofoam floating, that potentially could be a problem for a bird if they ate it and choked on it,” said Chris Bird, director of Alachua County’s Environmental Protection Department. “But actually it’s the stuff you don’t see that’s doing more damage.”

Bird said that stormwater runoff has led to fish kills at Bivens Arm, another conservation area in the county that contains both wildlife and human waste.

“I don’t think we’ve had that [at Depot Park] yet, but hopefully we won’t,” he said. •