Float on: Environmental impact of city’s disposable container ordinance is measured

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“When we first started doing river duty back in ’94-’95, we worked right here,” Craig Van Ryswyk said on a sweltering July morning in New Braunfels. “The bridge was narrow, and it wasn’t as tall.”

A veteran police officer and fire investigator for the New Braunfels Fire Department, Van Ryswyk has worked extra shifts doing river patrol at the Rockin’ R main camp, located on the Guadalupe River near the Gruene Road bridge, for the past five years.

“I’m like Andy Griffith,” Van Ryswyk said about his time on the river. “Don’t spit on me, don’t lie to me, and we’re good. But some officers agree with me that you shouldn’t be writing laws for sippy cups and kids with juice boxes.”

A common criticism of the city of New Braunfels’ disposable container ordinance, first passed in 2011 and permanently reinstated in fall 2017 by a Texas appeals court, is the all-encompassing nature of the ordinance which has created a “phenomenon,” Van Ryswyk said, one in which riders simply start further upstream on the Guadalupe River and exit once they reach city limits at the Gruene Road bridge.

“The amount of trash they’ve collected has made a tremendous impact,” said Scott Roots, a supporter of the ordinance and its environmental outcomes.

Roots is a member of the city of New Braunfels River Advisory Committee—a group of city officials, business owners and residents—and has been living at his home on the Guadalupe River for more than a decade.

“We used to see cans, and we’re still seeing a few but not anywhere close,” Roots said. “But, the amount of people that are floating has lessened. There’s not near as many people floating the Guadalupe from Gruene to Cypress Bend [Park].”

The “yin and yang” aspect of the ordinance, as Van Ryswyk called it, the trade-off for outfitters such as Rockin’ R Manager Shane Wolf, has been a cleaner river overall.

Numbers provided by the city of New Braunfels from 2012-17 indicate a significant up-tick in the amount of litter collected during years when the ordinance was not enforced. More than 35,000 pounds of litter was collected in 2017. That number dropped to less than 21,000 pounds of litter with the ban back in place a year later.

Numbers from litter collection through a scuba operation that targets the bottom of each river tell a similar story.

In 2012, the total poundage of underwater litter collected totaled 820.12 pounds. Meanwhile, from 2012-17, the smallest amount of underwater litter collected in years the ordinance was not in place was 3,077.48 pounds in 2017.

“There’s been a direct effect, and there’s no one that wants a cleaner river more than we do,” Wolf said. “For the 40 years that Rockin’ R has been here, we’ve always done river cleanups and still do two to three a week. Divers and individual residents will tell you, there’s a noticeable difference.”

One focus for city of New Braunfels officials—due to the high volume of floaters in a smaller area when compared to the Guadalupe River—is the Comal River where changes have also been noticeable to Bella Weston, manager of 444 Tubes, located on the Comal River near the San Antonio Street bridge.

“There is a pretty significant difference in how much less trash they’re finding,” Weston said. “Growing up with [someone who did river patrol], they would find feet of compacted trash at the bottom of the river.”

“From what we’ve seen, there’s less trash thrown on the side,” she said. “There’s less trash on our property, and that’s what we want. It takes less money to clean up, and there’s less of an environmental impact from trash that flows down river.”

While the yin aspect of the ordinance, the environmental impact, has been positive by most accounts, the yang, or the potential negative effect the ordinance could have on tourism, is harder to quantify.

Wristband numbers from the city’s $2 to tube program on weekends and holidays show similar tourist attendance over the past three years, and city revenue from the hotel occupancy tax from 2012-18 surpassed the $4 million mark for the first time in fiscal year 2018-19.

“The biggest thing is the pocket,” Van Ryswyk said. “How can we do it without making people spend extra? But as humans we get used to it, so I expect that’s what’s going to happen here. If you want to float, you have to play the game.”

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