Doug Ewing looks out over a small section of the Snohomish River that he has been keeping clean for the last 10 years at the Oscar Hoover Water Access Site in Snohomish. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Doug Ewing looks out over a small section of the Snohomish River that he has been keeping clean for the last 10 years at the Oscar Hoover Water Access Site in Snohomish. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Diving for trash in Snohomish River, biologist fills 59 pickup beds

At Thomas’ Eddy, Doug Ewing estimates he has collected 3,000 pounds of lead fishing weights. And that’s just one spot.

SNOHOMISH — Every summer for the past decade, Doug Ewing puts on his diving gear: A pair of cutoffs, a shirt, a straw hat and a face mask.

He’s hunting for garbage in the Snohomish River.

In particular, he’s looking for lead.

At Thomas’ Eddy across from the Bob Heirman Wildlife Park, he’ll dive into the clear water in search of tell-tale monofilament lines sticking out of the riverbed, dancing with the current. Almost always these lost lines are tethered to a lead weight. He grabs a hold and rips them out.

Ewing, who lives just up the hill with his wife, has cleaned up this little stretch of the river 10 years or so now. He adds these sinkers to his collection, stored in a couple bins outside his house. He has thousands of all shapes and sizes: flat circular discs and pyramids and spheres and droopy oblong ovals. Some might be over a century old. People have been fishing these waters forever, and Ewing might be the first guy to try to clean them up.

Judging by the size of the bins, and how heavy lead is, he estimated he has collected some 3,000 pounds.

He told a Herald reporter to try and lift the smaller bin. “Don’t strain yourself.”

The reporter tried to lift, making sure to bend his knees. The bin barely budged.

It’s Ewing’s retirement project. Now 68, he used to be the greenhouse manager for the University of Washington’s biology department, where he once showed off a 9-foot-tall agave plant.

Doug Ewing heads out to his pickup truck, which currently holds his 59th load of trash cleaned up from a small stretch of the Snohomish River. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Doug Ewing heads out to his pickup truck, which currently holds his 59th load of trash cleaned up from a small stretch of the Snohomish River. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Now he’s concerned about his river. Ewing calls lead “eternal garbage.” It’s an element. It’s not going to decompose. Instead, those weights are going to sit in the water with the potential of poisoning the river and everything that uses it. Birds and fish, for example, might inadvertently swallow smaller sinkers. Or the lead may dissolve over time and infiltrate water and soil, and get passed onto plants and critters.

Lead is cheap, “damn dense,” traditional, Ewing says. He wants to see a total ban of the toxic substance in hunting and fishing, but he fears he’ll never see that. Getting rid of it would transform how many people go about fishing.

The use of lead in paint and gasoline has already been banned, but lead fishing weights have been slower to gain attention. To protect the common loon, which has been known to ingest and die from lead, Washington has restricted using lead sinkers that measure 1½ inches or less at a dozen lakes. Other states have gone further, completely banning the sale and use of smaller lead weights.

Even if lead isn’t totally banned any time soon, Ewing carries on with his task. He sees his bins of lead, collected from about a quarter-mile of river, as a data point. If there’s this much lead here — albeit in a rather popular fishing spot — how much must there be in all of Washington’s waterways? And what is the effect of all that?

Ewing took closer notice of the garbage in the river about a decade ago. Maybe someone would park for lunch and toss out their beverage bottles or their McDonald’s bags and go on their way.

“It bothered me,” he said. “It really bothered me.”

Doug Ewing holds up a giant “necklace” of fishing lures he has pulled from the depths of the Snohomish River. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Doug Ewing holds up a giant “necklace” of fishing lures he has pulled from the depths of the Snohomish River. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

So he did something about it.

He soon found there was quite a backlog.

First he spotted the “24-hour garbage,” the stuff that appears daily, like the McDonald’s bags.

Then Ewing started seeing what he called “old garbage,” like flip-top cans that were banned in the ’70s. He guessed he gathered thousands of cans when he first started. “Like every three feet was a beer can.”

He’d find bottles and tarps and tires, too, that had been apparently sitting around for months, years, decades.

Last, Ewing realized the extent of the aforementioned “eternal garbage,” like lead and batteries. One time, he found 37 pounds of batteries scattered on the riverbed that someone had apparently dumped. It took him over two hours to pick them all up.

There’s no one person or group of people to blame, he said. Everyone is littering. It could be the people who come here to fish, those who stop by for a quick lunch or a dip in the water, or folks partying at the Oscar Hoover Water Access Site. Everyone is responsible for what they leave behind — though it’s hard for Ewing to imagine the type of person who would pollute the environment like that.

Doug Ewing displays two totes filled with about 3,000 pounds of lead sinkers he has plucked from the bottom of the Snohomish River. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Doug Ewing displays two totes filled with about 3,000 pounds of lead sinkers he has plucked from the bottom of the Snohomish River. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

“The best I could come up with is, well, they’re just from a different planet, you know what I mean?”

They didn’t have his mother, he reasoned.

“Lord knows they didn’t have my mother.”

It’s a futile, Sisyphean task, cleaning the river. But Ewing is stubborn.

“Very stubborn,” he said. “I just decided I wasn’t gonna let those people define what the river is.”

So every day, or almost every day, he takes his Toyota pickup and his trash picker stick down to the river’s bank, and he scours for garbage. Inevitably, there’s more each time he goes down.

He has found a half-dozen phones, about half of which he got back to their owners; a wedding ring; all kinds of clothing; disposable diapers; just the head of a Barbie doll. One time he helped a woman find her very expensive pair of sunglasses she lost while swimming.

Ewing has collected a lot of lures, too. He’s clipped them all together into a large necklace.

“This is kind of my art project,” he said.

He threw the necklace on around his neck and put on his best Mr. T impression.

“I pity the fish!”

Doug Ewing stands over a burn site at the Oscar Hoover Water Access Site along Short School Road on Thursday in Snohomish. Ewing said people come out to the site to party and have bonfires, but never clean up after themselves. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Doug Ewing stands over a burn site at the Oscar Hoover Water Access Site along Short School Road on Thursday in Snohomish. Ewing said people come out to the site to party and have bonfires, but never clean up after themselves. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Ewing is on his 59th truck load of garbage. Soon, he’ll take that to the dump and start on his 60th.

The work depresses him. But he has hope. Recently, he connected with Green Snohomish, a local environmental group. Together, he hopes to raise more awareness about trash in the river, educate people about the potential dangers of lead, and energize some groups to do cleanup days.

There are a lot of big problems in the world. But here, at this bend in the river, Ewing feels like he can make a difference.

“I can’t fix climate change,” he said. “But I can pick up a damn beer bottle.”

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; zbryan@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @zachariahtb.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

A view of one of the potential locations of the new Aquasox stadium on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024 in Everett, Washington. The site sits between Hewitt Avenue, Broadway, Pacific Avenue and the railroad. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
20 businesses could be demolished for downtown Everett stadium

Some business owners say the city didn’t tell them of plans for a new AquaSox stadium that could displace their businesses.

Kathy Purviance-Snow poses for a photo in her computer lab at Snohomish High School on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024, in Snohomish, WA. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
To ban or embrace ChatGPT? Local teachers fight AI with AI — or don’t

“It has fundamentally changed my teaching in really stressful and exciting ways,” an EvCC teacher said. At all levels of education, ChatGPT poses a tricky question.

In this Feb. 5, 2018, file photo a Boeing 737 MAX 7 is displayed during a debut for employees and media of the new jet in Renton, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
FAA gives Boeing 90 days to develop plan to fix quality, safety issues

The agency’s ultimatum comes a day after a meeting with CEO Dave Calhoun and other top Boeing officials in Washington, D.C.

A man walks by Pfizer headquarters, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, in New York. Pfizer will spend about $43 billion to buy Seagen and broaden its reach into cancer treatments, the pharmaceutical giant said. (AP Photo / Mark Lennihan, File)
Pfizer backs out of Everett manufacturing plant after $43B Seagen deal

Pfizer finalized the acquisition of the Bothell-based cancer drug developer in December.

Cars drive through snow along I-5 in Snohomish County, Washington on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024.  (Annie Barker / The Herald)
In March, 7 p.m. sunsets are back for Western Washington

Washingtonians will finally start seeing more sun starting March 10. But a little more winter could be on the way first.

One of the parking lots at Stevens Pass Thursday afternoon on December 30, 2021.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Stevens Pass to charge $20 for parking reservations on busy days

Two-thirds of spaces will remain free for early arrivers on weekends. Cars with four or more occupants can also park free.

Lynnwood
Days after shootout with Lynnwood police, suspect checks into hospital

Police learned the 18-year-old was in a hospital in Portland, Oregon. His alleged role in the shooting remained unclear.

Everett
Snohomish County pharmacy tech accused of stealing 2,500 opioid pills

Rachel Langdon stole oxycodone while working at a Snohomish County pharmacy, according to state Department of Health allegations.

Patrick Kunz speaks during his sentencing on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, at Snohomish County Superior Court in Everett, Washington.(Annie Barker / The Herald)
Everett gymnastics coach who spied on students sentenced to 6 months

Patrick Kunz, 47, pleaded guilty to charges of voyuerism and possession of child pornography last month.

Traffic moves along Highway 526 in front of Boeing’s Everett Production Facility on Nov. 28, 2022, in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / Sound Publishing)
Everett transgender mechanic alleges Boeing treated her ‘like a zoo animal’

For years, Boeing allowed toxicity “to fester and grow” at its Everett factory, according to Rachel Rasmussen, an employee from 1989 to 2024.

Everett police officers survey the scene of a shooting along East Casino Road on Friday, Oct. 13, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Washington’s 5th police academy could be in Snohomish County

A new academy in Northwest Washington would help clear a lengthy wait list for new police hires to get training.

Monroe High School (Monroe School District)
Monroe High School teacher accused of sexual misconduct, put on leave

Few details were not available Thursday afternoon. Police were seeking information from the public.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.